Social Media and Non-Verbal Communication

It’s a surprise when you are unfriended on FaceBook.


At first I didn’t realize that it had happened, although I did notice that my former friend’s postings had stopped showing up on my newsfeed. The next day when I wanted to communicate with him, I realized the truth. Where was he? I searched for him on my friends list and he was gone.


Had he gone rogue and decided to forsake FB altogether? I checked if he was still listed on FB and there he was. When I looked at my friends list again, I saw that my number had dropped by one. Hmm! I had been unfriended. I sent an email to him to ask why and got a pleasant enough message back saying that we were too different to be friends. I appreciated his candor.


I began to think about friendships and how they have changed in the context of social media. In the older sense of a friendship where one has physical interactions in real time, you usually are able to sense whether the friendship is based on real commonalities or connections. You have a visceral sense of whether you like the other person and if it is reciprocated. You have a wealth of non-verbal communication cues to help understand what your friend is saying to you.


For example, you can see the barest hint of a smile on the lips as your acquaintance tells you something that is outrageous. That’s a clue that you would miss if you’re not in each other’s presence. How about the lift of an eyebrow which tells you that the person is being arch? You miss that if you are communicating in text only. Tone of voice, physical posture, and gestures are all missing when you interact through chat exchanges. Although emoticons were invented to help circumvent this gap, they don’t truly represent the rich vocabulary that exists through non-verbal communication.


In person, if the friendship goes down the tubes, you usually get a chance to talk with them and witness the non-verbal cues that you miss online. Sometimes a one-on-one conversation in real time and physical proximity is enough to heal the breach.


It’s easier to dismiss someone from your life if you don’t have to actually watch his or her reaction. We all have heard the anecdotes about ending relationships via texts, notes or voice mails. No physical interaction means less emotional connection. With less emotional connection, you can more easily pretend that the receiver of the message is less than real and more like an object. Objects don’t have feelings, so you haven’t really hurt them by rejecting them.


How do I feel about being unfriended? It reconfirmed that friendships that develop from social media sites will never substitute for the old fashioned kind of relationships for me.  Being in someone’s presence tells me more truly whether a person is compatible than a few symbols scratched on the FB chat board.


© 2011 by Sheila Peters. All rights reserved.