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Why Emoticons Are Not Enough to Make a Real Connection


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.

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