Communication for Dummies and Other Theological Truths

It’s no longer dawn in the digital age. We are well into the full heat of the day and the shadows of miscommunication grow long as the hours pass. I think back to the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail. Opening credits played as the screech of the internet announced, “You’re online.” From that era of early chat rooms to today, the number of on-ramps to online social interactions has exploded.

And I imbibe, as does the majority of first world humanity. As a purveyor of blogs, posts, and even a few tweets, I have been embroiled in my fair share of communiques gone awry. Somebody gets offended by what I say (most often), what I don’t say (often), and by what my friends say (Jesus, help me).

I am honored to have friends of diverse backgrounds, identities, and understandings. Here is what I have noticed. Not a day goes by when one of them isn’t in a debate or fight with somebody else! In a forum with all the potential to blend and unite people around the world, battle lines are drawn millions of time a day. For every opinion or fact there is an opposer.

The internet has become a petri dish of misunderstanding. Easy accessibility and the pull of that one moment of fame lure us into unhealthy online word battles, grandiosity, and stupidity. In my musings on this phenomenon I often think back to my student days and a rule I learned for effectual communication: “Shut up.” I’m not particularly skilled at following this rule, but I do repeat it to myself whenever entering any group. “Shut up,” I say firmly. It’s a reminder to listen.

I’m not skilled at following this rule, but I do repeat it to myself whenever entering any group: “Shut up,” I say. It’s a reminder to listen.

It turns out that’s actually the first rule of excellent communication according to my bright yellow Improving Your Relationship for Dummies book: Listen. Dial in. Focus on the person in front of you, their body language, inflection, gestures. Concentrate on the words being shared, not the words in your head. This is listening.

The Relationships for Dummies book also offers, “Don’t interrupt” as a rule. Yet online communication is all about interruption. Ads, banners, and pop-ups are unruly toddlers jumping up and down screaming, “Pick me!”

Here’s the deal. Any form of communication that allows a listener to cook, exercise, fold laundry, or even (admit it—you’ve done it) go to the bathroom while dialogue is in play is not reliable for deep connection. Active engagement is necessary for clear communication. Passive engagement, on the other hand, where you can partially or completely disengage without the other person even noticing, fails to create the bind, the glue necessary for a good exchange. Interrupting is the name of the online communication game, which makes it a poor communication choice.

Another rule from the yellow book is, “Be clear on your objective. Stick to the matter at hand.” So many discussions begin in earnest only to disintegrate into a debate on whether Aunt Rhody’s hand-embroidered pillow case had been packed in cedar chips or mothballs. Or worse yet, we end up fighting over things of eternal consequence, causing unintentional pain and rejection of the church. Online conversations are scary little vermin, like kittens with Dracula fangs or babies with a diaper blowout. They look embraceable, but when you get close you get stuck in the stink.

For these reasons and a dozen more I offer that online conversations, especially in the holy space where we get to share our love of Jesus, must be held with an open hand and recognized for their limitations. It is a very short, albeit dark, unguarded road between well-intended discussion and controversy. The better part of wisdom tells me to stay off that road. I love Facebook and I spend a lot of time there. But expecting online communication to achieve the same measure of effectiveness as face-to-face dialogue is akin to filling a helium balloon with rocks and expecting it to float.

The final rule for Dummies is, “Avoid sarcasm.” I have now burned my yellow book.

About the Author

Jill Riley is editor-at-large for the Covenant Companion. She is a Korean American who was raised in North Idaho, the white supremacist headquarters in the 1980s. She now lives in Billings, Montana, where she planted and led Navigate, a Covenant Church, which was her third church plant.

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