Have you ever tried to navigate a sticky relationship via computer? Perhaps a disagreement with a friend or a dicey situation at work? You sit down, the desk chair creaks a bit, your fingers start flying. At first you type out of fear or with a good streak of indignation. The keys are clicking fast and hard. You stop, re-read it. Too harsh. Backspace, backspace, backspace. Start again.
Having this conversation face-to-face has definitely crossed your mind. Perhaps face-to-face is an impossible option due to time or distance. Or maybe it is simply easier not to have to look this particular person in the eyes. Either way, you find yourself in a moment of challenging communication. Two computer screens, cyberspace, and a chasm that opens you up to the vast canyons of misinterpretation standing between you and another person.
In our world of electronic anonymity, where screen names, nicknames, and protected passwords can hide our identities, disagreement and engagement that shows value for others and integrity has become increasingly hard to come by. Whether inside the church or out, behind the shield of a laptop we are engaging one another in new and increasingly painful ways.
“If I just e-mail her I can get this off my plate quickly.”
“Does her brief response mean she is upset with me or just short on time?”
“If I just send a message she won’t know how frustrated I really am.”
“Is she too upset to engage with me or did my message end up in her Spam folder?”
A leadership team at my church recently came to the brink of collapsing. Different agendas, leadership styles, and personalities set a few well-meaning women against one another. The situation itself was precarious and fragile. It became explosive when the tension went electronic.
In an attempt to rescue an already over-worked team from the burden of meetings, this group agreed to use e-mail as the primary form of communication. But it instantly became elusive.
Comments typed with joy were received in anger. Black words on a white screen were void of facial expressions. Exclamation points followed by the internet smile :) did little to assuage feelings of insecurity or fear the same way as a warm hug. And was this team not up for the challenge of facing the issues and limiting their e-mails in exchange for personal, the entire ministry they represent could easily have slipped into a cyber abyss.
Jesus clearly lays out a journey with others that is lived in the light. Scripture is filled with God’s invitation to do life openly and honestly, to let that which is fearful and dark be known. Let that which hinders growth and knowledge be cast off. This is not to over-spiritualize e-mail, but it is a reminder that even the simplest bits of communication can end up crouching in dark, faceless places in our hearts.
I have many friends who admit (and I admit as well), to using e-mail as a way to shy away from confrontation. You know the way it goes “I was going to call you, but it is late, so I thought I would just e-mail instead . . . .” Translation: “This is hard for me and not having to look you in the eyes makes it easier.” “I’ll just hide out in the dark here for a bit.”
So how can we embrace our electronic culture by using the time-saving and social networking opportunities it provides, but keeping integrity and strength of purpose along the way? Here are a few simple thoughts:
1. Wait 24 hours. Before engaging with a relational issue via e-mail, wait a day to think, pray, and reflect on the situation. You will likely feel differently about the immediate issue if you give yourself a day to think and ask for insight from other sources.
2.Never reply out of anger. Do your best to release feelings of anger or frustration before you respond. If you are deeply wounded, e-mail is probably not your best avenue for communication. Making the phone call or scheduling the meeting is essential if your pain or anger is deep. It is also the more difficult path, but it is the one that most honors the process and highlights hope for reconciliation.
3. Make time to just talk. Do your best to create buffers in your schedule where you can connect with others in person. This may mean scheduling your meetings farther apart or lingering a bit longer during a soccer game or school drop off. If you create space to talk with people in person, the amount of relational work you do via e-mail can diminish.
4. Always sign your name and if you feel comfortable, provide contact information for follow up. A screen name can hide our identities. Sometimes this is desired, but when it comes to personal communication and confrontation, Skaterbabe4God is too ambiguous. Signing off with your name and contact information is an integrity filled way to end or open the door to continue a conversation.
Taking the time to think through the dynamics of electronic communication will honor the people and relationships in your life the way God honors them. Honestly, openly, and in a way that gives life to the community rather than the second guesses and fear that can land in our inbox.