Communication is difficult. It is made even more difficult when the two people communicating are in a dispute. Then, it is still MORE difficult when the communication involves discussions that aren’t face-to-face. Universally recognized body-language and tone are lost when parties communicate with each other via email or text. This difficulty is magnified significantly when one party or the other isn’t a good writer, or when there is a significant disparity in the communication skills of the parties.
I majored in English in college. I remember very clearly an assignment in one English class where we were asked to write seven pages on two lines from Homer’s Odyssey. Two lines of poetry. Eight or nine words. In order to complete the assignment, we had to drill deep into the meaning of each word, discuss the possible interplay with each word and the one that preceded it in detail, discuss again the interplay with that word and the one that followed it, then create a chain of interpretations that created meaning that was consistent with the rest of the work. It was frustrating at the outset, but was also extremely instructive, as it laid bare how variable and complex language can be, and how, as discussed above, even a simple phrase can be interpreted in many ways.
Not every writer is Homer. In fact, most people, when they write, don’t spend time considering the complex interplay between one word and the next. Most people use the words that come to mind when they have a desire to express a meaning, and leave it at that. Some people are good at that. Their writing is clear and conveys the meaning that they hope it will to the majority of readers.
Some writers suck.
Speaking and writing are very different skills. People who are very good at expressing themselves when they speak are not always as proficient with the written word. The converse is true as well. Writers are not always speakers. When in a dispute, or in a relationship that has problems, writing that is unclear or that can be misinterpreted often makes matters worse.
Jimmy and his ex-girlfriend Amy have a child, Mary. Their kid is about 4, and when she recently went from Jimmy’s house to Amy’s house, Amy noticed a rash on Mary’s leg that hadn’t been there a few days before. She called Jimmy and asked him if he had noticed it. Jimmy said no, but that he’d keep an eye on it, and she promised to do the same. A few days later, after exchanging Mary back and forth again, Amy checked the rash again and it was much worse. She texted Jimmy “why the hell didn’t you take Mary to the doctor?”, she asked. To her, it was clear that it was a medical issue that needed swift resolution. Jimmy’s response, “I didn’t think it was that big a deal”, sent Amy into a fury, and she responded by telling him that she thought he was “a fucking idiot”. Jimmy responded that she is a “controlling bitch”…and then they ended up in my office.
Clearly, Jimmy and Amy disagree about the severity of the rash, and the course of action that it requires. It is striking, however, that they could have the conversation on the phone that goes well and articulates a plan, and that they would subsequently text and it dissolves into animosity.
When they arrived in my office, and they were again speaking, rather than writing, it became clear that Amy had been alarmed when she had asked him “why the hell” he hadn’t taken Mary to the doctor, and that it wasn’t taken as the attack that Jimmy had perceived it to be. Further, upon looking at pictures, in the several hours between when Jimmy had dropped the child off at school and when Amy had picked her up, the rash had gotten significantly worse. They were able to work through this and to come up with a plan for when she’d go to the doctor and with whom, including how the doctor’s conclusions would be communicated to the other parent…all without dissolving into the invective that it had taken a few short texts to achieve.
When subtly of meaning exists, this can be even more difficult. Take the example of envious vs jealous. To some people, these two words have nearly the same meaning. To others, being envious implies a wistful desire to have something similar to what another person demonstrates. Being jealous implies both a desire to have what that person demonstrates, and a desire to share in that particular one.
This is best described with an example.
Bob texts his friend Steve a picture of his new car. Steve feels a twinge of…something.
Envy would be if Steve’s twinge was a desire for a new car of his own - maybe even one like Bob’s.
Jealousy would be if Steve’s twinge was a desire to have the exact car that Bob now owns…a desire to get Bob out of the driver’s seat and replace him.
Romantic Envy and Jealousy
In terms of romantic relationships, envy and jealousy are common and the distinction is very important. Instead of a new car, it might be a new lover, or it might be a vacation that one parent takes with the parties’ child to which the other parent might not be invited.
Being envious because of the new lover might suggest wishing to have a new lover of one’s own, whereas jealousy suggests a desire to take the place of the new lover.
Being envious of the vacation suggests a wistful desire to be able to offer the child the same kind of experience, whereas jealousy implies that the parent who isn’t on the trip wishes they were there, perhaps in place of someone else.
The problem is, for some people, jealousy and envy mean the same thing. For others, they are two subtly different words with subtly different meanings. If the parties do not have the same perception, problems can arise.
Given the above examples, and the possibility for confusion there, imagine a mother texting a picture of her, her new husband and the parties’ child with Mickey Mouse to the child’s father to show how happy the child is at Disneyland.
The father replies “Awww…I’m so jealous!”
What does he mean?
Email vs. Text
To an ever increasing extent, texts and emails are different. For many people, both appear on their mobile device in almost the same way, but emails convey an official nature and a formality that texts do not. Emailing “I need to set up a time to talk to you” carries a very different connotation than getting the same message in a text. If the text actually says “I need 2 set up a time to talk 2 u”, there is still less formality.
That means that in deciding how to communicate with one another, people in a dispute should be aware of what the method of communication says about the message that they are trying to convey. There is not a right answer or a wrong one here, there is simply a recognition that emails and texts, while they may say the same things, send very different messages.
Pitfalls of Texting
Texting is a difficult mode of communication. While it can be informal and quick, it can also lead to informal and quick responses rather than thought-out or measured responses. In a dispute, this can be dangerous. Similarly, the time between responses, whether there is punctuation, or capitalization, the length of the text, the use of whole words rather than substitutes, or the use of emojis…all of these things can convey a very different message than the one intended.
All of these factors are impacted by age, gender, generation and schedule, and it makes the subtle undertones behind any text message potentially problematic. When in a dispute in which one party might be looking for reasons to continue the dispute, ‘potentially problematic’ becomes an understatement.
The Bottom Line
There is no clear answer to how to communicate with someone with whom you are in a dispute. There is no way to say ‘use texts rather than emails, and include at least 2 emoticons and your communication will be fine!’ Obviously, human communication doesn’t work that way.
Do be aware of how your messages might be received.
Do be aware that more information conveyed in any form of commutation that exceeds what you say.
Do be aware of the fact that the other person might not want to cut you any slack.
Do be aware that the other person might view your message in the worst possible way, rather than the best.
Therefore, with this awareness, be careful and deliberate about how you say what you say.
Taking the extra time to craft your message before you send it can save tons of time, heartache and trouble down the road.
Alex Tillson is an experienced family mediator in the Portland, Oregon area. He specializes in domestic relations issues such as divorce, custody, parenting time and other family disputes. You can reach him by phone or email: