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Why Emoticons Are Not Enough to Make a Real Connection

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Eugene Gan - published on 01/27/15

Trouble communicating online? Return to the family to learn to do it well

It’s the feast of Saint Francis de Sales and the Catholic Church has released Pope Francis’ World Communications Day message. It’s circulated earlier than World Communications Day itself (May 17 this year) so that churches around the world have the chance to read, reflect, and respond, or in the words of Pope St. John Paul II, take on the tasks of formation, dialogue, and participation in and through the media, and can be better prepared to celebrate World Communications Day.

It’s a succinct message and I’m excited to unpack it with you and apply it to our online communications:  

“The family is a subject of profound reflection by the Church and of a process involving two Synods: the recent extraordinary assembly and the ordinary assembly scheduled for next October. So I thought it appropriate that the theme for the next World Communications Day should have the family as its point of reference. After all, it is in the context of the family that we first learn how to communicate. Focusing on this context can help to make our communication more authentic and humane, while helping us to view the family in a new perspective."

The current message ‘Communicating the Family: A Privileged Place of Encounter with the Gift of Love’ connects the message from last year, which reminded us of the human person behind every communication online (a network not of wires but of people), to the central theme of the family in the upcoming synod. What has the family got to do with how I communicate online? Pope Francis proposes that how we express love to one another within the family – the first encounter most of us have with another human person and the place where we learn language and how to communicate our desires, longings, fears, joys, and thoughts, and in particular, our words and how we say things, how we express our innermost selves – influences how we communicate with others, both friend and stranger, online. By returning to the origin of where we learned to communicate, we can communicate more authentically and more humanely. But what is this new perspective on viewing the human family? The answer he proposes may surprise us. It’s from a child’s response that we can learn:

“We can draw inspiration from the Gospel passage which relates the visit of Mary to Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-56). “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’.” (vv. 41-42)
“This episode first shows us how communication is a dialogue intertwined with the language of the body. The first response to Mary’s greeting is given by the child, who leaps for joy in the womb of Elizabeth. Joy at meeting others, which is something we learn even before being born, is, in one sense, the archetype and symbol of every other form of communication. The womb which hosts us is the first ‘school’ of communication, a place of listening and physical contact where we begin to familiarize ourselves with the outside world within a protected environment, with the reassuring sound of the mother’s heartbeat. This encounter between two persons, so intimately related while still distinct from each other, an encounter so full of promise, is our first experience of communication. It is an experience which we all share, since each of us was born of a mother.”

Communication involves the whole human person. It’s not merely about grammar or proper use of words. At the outset, it’s not going to be easy to dialogue authentically online because the current predominant mode of online communication is textual, and because body language and facial features aren’t always on view, it takes effort, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness to express ourselves.
Emoticons can only take us so far, and after the 10th smiley face animation in a paragraph, it might even start to get annoying. But Pope Francis is emphasizing something else. He’s emphasizes practicing joy at meeting others, which can influence and direct what we say and how we say it online. It’s symbolic that beginning in the womb, we listen first before we can speak. And it’s to a reassuring and repetitive message of the heart as it were that we’re first exposed. It’s also symbolic that the protective environment of the womb, and in turn, of the family, is where we practice engaging another outside ourselves. As much as we learn about the physical environment from our parents, the family is also a good place to learn about the online environment.

“Even after we have come into the world, in some sense we are still in a ‘womb,’ which is the family. A womb made up of various interrelated persons: the family is ‘where we learn to live with others despite our differences’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 66). Notwithstanding the differences of gender and age between them, family members accept one another because there is a bond between them. The wider the range of these relationships and the greater the differences of age, the richer will be our living environment. It is this bond which is at the root of language, which in turn strengthens the bond. We do not create our language; we can use it because we have received it. It is in the family that we learn to speak our ‘mother tongue,’  the language of those who have gone before us. (cf. 2 Macc 7:25,27). In the family we realize that others have preceded us, they made it possible for us to exist and in our turn to generate life and to do something good and beautiful. We can give because we have received. This virtuous circle is at the heart of the family’s ability to communicate among its members and with others. More generally, it is the model for all communication.”

How do we practice communicating charitably with others online despite our differences? Do we try to identify common traits, common longings of the human heart? Do we remind ourselves: this person is human too and has experienced joy and sadness as I have? We can’t give what we ourselves lack. Ultimately, we must return to the Giver, Our Father God, and it is through prayer that we receive what we need:

“The experience of this relationship which ‘precedes’ us enables the family to become the setting in which the most basic form of communication, which is prayer, is handed down. When parents put their newborn children to sleep, they frequently entrust them to God, asking that he watch over them. When the children are a little older, parents help them to recite some simple prayers, thinking with affection of other people, such as grandparents, relatives, the sick and suffering, and all those in need of God’s help. It was in our families that the majority of us learned the religious dimension of communication, which in the case of Christianity is permeated with love, the love that God bestows upon us and which we then offer to others.

In the family, we learn to embrace and support one another, to discern the meaning of facial expressions and moments of silence, to laugh and cry together with people who did not choose one other yet are so important to each other. This greatly helps us to understand the meaning of communication as recognizing and creating closeness. When we lessen distances by growing closer and accepting one another, we experience gratitude and joy. Mary’s greeting and the stirring of her child are a blessing for Elizabeth; they are followed by the beautiful canticle of the Magnificat, in which Mary praises God’s loving plan for her and for her people. A ‘yes’ spoken with faith can have effects that go well beyond ourselves and our place in the world. To ‘visit’ is to open doors, not remaining closed in our little world, but rather going out to others. So too the family comes alive as it reaches beyond itself; families who do so communicate their message of life and communion, giving comfort and hope to more fragile families, and thus build up the Church herself, which is the family of families.”

Not choosing to be closed in our own little worlds. Now there’s a challenge. Ironic isn’t it: the broader our options online, the narrower the interactions we experience. Our news feeds are increasingly so customized that we see only what we want to see, what we already agree with. I have noticed of late that a good percentage of the news I automatically receive comprises news in the Catholic world. On the one hand, this is great: news that I want is delivered to me daily, plus given the media’s generally poor coverage and unbalanced reportage of Catholic news, this direct access to Catholic news makes for a more balanced worldview. On the other hand, I’m not as exposed to opposing viewpoints that can serve to challenge and so affirm what I hold so dearly. I have to “go out of my way” to make bookmarks to other sites to listen, learn, and share the truth, goodness, and beauty of my faith as applied to the news and circumstances “out there”.

“More than anywhere else, the family is where we daily experience our own limits and those of others, the problems great and small entailed in living peacefully with others. A perfect family does not exist. We should not be fearful of imperfections, weakness or even conflict, but rather learn how to deal with them constructively. The family, where we keep loving one another despite our limits and sins, thus becomes a school of forgiveness. Forgiveness is itself a process of communication. When contrition is expressed and accepted, it becomes possible to restore and rebuild the communication which broke down. A child who has learned in the family to listen to others, to speak respectfully and to express his or her view without negating that of others, will be a force for dialogue and reconciliation in society.

“When it comes to the challenges of communication, families who have children with one or more disabilities have much to teach us. A motor, sensory or mental limitation can be a reason for closing in on ourselves, but it can also become, thanks to the love of parents, siblings, and friends, an incentive to openness, sharing and ready communication with all. It can also help schools, parishes and associations to become more welcoming and inclusive of everyone.
In a world where people often curse, use foul language, speak badly of others, sow discord and poison our human environment by gossip, the family can teach us to understand communication as a blessing. In situations apparently dominated by hatred and violence, where families are separated by stone walls or the no less impenetrable walls of prejudice and resentment, where there seem to be good reasons for saying ‘enough is enough,’ it is only by blessing rather than cursing, by visiting rather than repelling, and by accepting rather than fighting, that we can break the spiral of evil, show that goodness is always possible, and educate our children to fellowship.”

Encountering differences and conflict is part and parcel of communication. The key – and challenge – is courage… and forgiveness. Despite all the negatives that are possible in communication – the deceit, the disparaging remarks, the unspoken but hidden attacks, the misunderstandings, and biases (some getting so bad and hateful that it results in suicides) – communication is still a blessing and gift. Does it take one who is disabled to remind us of the gift of communication? It takes courage and forgiveness to break the spiral of evil, remembering that Love has triumphed over evil.

“Today the modern media, which are an essential part of life for young people in particular, can be both a help and a hindrance to communication in and between families. The media can be a hindrance if they become a way to avoid listening to others, to evade physical contact, to fill up every moment of silence and rest, so that we forget that ‘silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist.’ (BENEDICT XVI, Message for the 2012 World Communications Day). The media can help communication when they enable people to share their stories, to stay in contact with distant friends, to thank others or to seek their forgiveness, and to open the door to new encounters. By growing daily in our awareness of the vital importance of encountering others, these “new possibilities”, we will employ technology wisely, rather than letting ourselves be dominated by it. Here too, parents are the primary educators, but they cannot be left to their own devices. The Christian community is called to help them in teaching children how to live in a media environment in a way consonant with the dignity of the human person and service of the common good.

“The great challenge facing us today is to learn once again how to talk to one another, not simply how to generate and consume information. The latter is a tendency which our important and influential modern communications media can encourage. Information is important, but it is not enough. All too often things get simplified, different positions and viewpoints are pitted against one another, and people are invited to take sides, rather than to see things as a whole.”

Do we use online media as an escape from reality, or do we use it to engage the reality of human persons at the other end of this technology-enhanced communication channel? Do we use online media to evade physical contact with one another, or do we use it because we desire a closeness with others who are necessarily separated from us physically? Do we use online media to fill in for the “terrible silence” in our lives, or do we use it to reach out beyond ourselves to others – effectively countering any sadness and emptiness – to speak of the Good News that Jesus Christ is proposing something far greater, far lovelier than anything we have on earth? When it’s not all about us, generating and consuming our information, we can experience authentic joy. We can then have the courage to step away to see the big picture.

“The family, in conclusion, is not a subject of debate or a terrain for ideological skirmishes. Rather, it is an environment in which we learn to communicate in an experience of closeness, a setting where communication takes place, a “communicating community”. The family is a community which provides help, which celebrates life and is fruitful. Once we realize this, we will once more be able to see how the family continues to be a rich human resource, as opposed to a problem or an institution in crisis. At times the media can tend to present the family as a kind of abstract model which has to be accepted or rejected, defended or attacked, rather than as a living reality. Or else a grounds for ideological clashes rather than as a setting where we can all learn what it means to communicate in a love received and returned. Relating our experiences means realizing that our lives are bound together as a single reality, that our voices are many, and that each is unique.

“Families should be seen as a resource rather than as a problem for society. Families at their best actively communicate by their witness the beauty and the richness of the relationship between man and woman, and between parents and children. We are not fighting to defend the past. Rather, with patience and trust, we are working to build a better future for the world in which we live.”

Let us strive, therefore, to make the family a place for joy, for an open environment where communication flourishes, a place where we can freely express ourselves, even risking misunderstandings in our faltering steps to be authentic while assured in mutual forgiveness. After all, communication as Scripture defines it, is Love: Jesus Christ communicating Himself to us (John 1:1-5).


Dr Eugene Gan is faculty associate of the Veritas Center and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His book, Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media is grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.

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Pope FrancisTechnology
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