Commentary

Mixed Messages

Can you pick up the Emergen-C?” my friend texted me — she had bought me my cough medicine the day before. I texted back, “Sure, it cost 20 dollars, right?”  “22” was her response. I didn’t have any change on me, so I texted her back asking if I could just give her 20 dollars. She sent a picture of the receipt to me, which read, “21.99.” I texted her again, “Please?? I don’t have change.” 

That’s when the argument became heated. I didn’t think the two dollars was a big deal, but my friend wouldn’t let it go. We threw around texts that personally attacked each other. I became defensive and started listing all the things I had given her without asking for anything in return, only to be faced with texts from her about my morality.

This argument is not something of which I am proud. The reason our argument was blown out of proportion was because it was done through text — not through face-to-face interaction. The inherent limitations of iMessage communication led to misunderstanding that turned a trivial disagreement into an intense argument. Texting is notorious for promoting miscommunication that can be avoided with face-to-face conversation.

Our facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language all convey meaning. If two people say the exact same phrase but say it with different body language, the meaning of their words differs drastically. This is one reason I try to avoid addressing sensitive questions and topics through text. I prefer to reply, “Let’s talk later,” and wait until the next day to talk in person. Sometimes, however, unanswered messages feel like thorns in our sides; the text conversation between me and my friend made the two dollars feel like a make-or-break point in our friendship.

This summer, I read the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When The Stakes Are High.” This book defines a crucial conversation as any conversation with high stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions. Though it offers a long series of tips to mastering each stage of a crucial conversation, dedicating oneself to employing even one of these tips would make one a more effective conversationalist.

In the middle of the heated text argument with my friend, I decided to work out at the gym and take a break from the conversation. Afterwards, when I was in a clearer headspace. I knew I needed to change the tone of the conversation. I decided to employ the tools I had learned from this book. 

One of the tips the book offered was to use a “contrasting statement.” There are two steps to this method: first, stating what you don’t mean to say or come across as, and second, stating your actual intentions. My contrasting statement was, “I’m not trying to appear as ungrateful. In fact I am very grateful that you went to BJ’s to purchase me Emergen-C. I was hoping you would be a little generous, as I hope you know that I would return the favor in another way.” For me, the contrasting statement was one of the most powerful tools for having a crucial conversation, as it really slowed down the pace of the heated argument.

No matter how many conversational skills we try to master, the easiest way to have a difficult conversation while also avoiding unnecessary conflict is to talk in person. While texting my friend, I was not sure whether she was being sarcastic, earnestly trying to explain something to me, or downright attacking me. I am positive that if I had been able to see her facial expressions and read her body language, I would have had a much easier, clearer time understanding what she was saying. Arguments are inevitable, so we should face them in ways that simultaneously resolve our problems and preserve friendships.

Oct 20, 2017