I’ll bet you have most probably had a similar text conversation before:
“I’m bringing takeaways, I’ll be home at 6.”
“why just k? Is something wrong? Should I rather be cooking for you?”

It seems to be a piece of advice so often given but so rarely taken – do not communicate important issues through text messaging. Most people know that when you communicate with others through instant messaging you lose important social cues such as tone of voice and body language. Suddenly the simplest answer to a question becomes the recipe for a fight.

Couples communication and social media

As an avid social media and instant messenger user I have come across my fair amount of “one word answer” individuals who just don’t seem to communicate very well on text messaging. Or rather, don’t want to communicate by text at all. This doesn’t mean anything is wrong with them, they are just not that way inclined. As technology has taken over, well, almost everything, not being on social media or using an instant messenger service makes you a pariah of sorts.

I believe I can safely say that someone who announces they have no social media accounts are fleetingly thought of as being weird or out of touch with the 21st century. I have seen important business meetings made via whatsapp and I have had clients book sessions through Facebook. And as ashamed as I am to admit it, I have had many, many arguments via Whatsapp. And if you haven’t, well, you’re an exceptional human being.

It was no surprise to me when I saw how many of my couples brought up Whatsapp or BBM fights with me in my sessions with them. It usually includes the vehement statement “that’s not what I meant when I typed that!” but unfortunately it was perceived as an attack by the other partner. As previously mentioned, tone is a very important aspect in social interaction and you cannot possibly notice it over instant messaging. Suddenly typing something such as “K” is interpreted as a dismissive response when if done in a face to face interaction, could simply mean agreement.

How we communicate

It is said that micro-expressions (such as fear, sadness, surprise and anger) can occur at 1/15th of a second. The average human mind is very good at interpreting facial expressions and responding to them by their own. These expressions are also universal – people in Italy have the same micro-expression of anger as us here in South Africa. Seeing another person’s facial expression no matter how brief elicits a response of our own. The human mind can then process this information at 13 milliseconds and is able to understand and respond accordingly.

Saying something callous will create a hurt expression on your partner’s face and your brain filters this information. You are then able to respond more gently or continue the altercation, depending on your conflict style. However if you have typed something hurtful on Whatsapp (which you may or may not have known was hurtful to them) you are unable to see the reaction your partner has had and therefore unable to respond accordingly. That is how arguments begin and that is how they can continue.

Communicating via voice message or over the phone is slightly better of course, because you can pick up tone of voice but is certainly not the best option. Albert Mehrabian, a communication guru since the 1960s, has broken down the importance of communication into 3 parts. 7% of importance is placed on the content that is spoken, 38% is the way in which the words are spoken (tone) and 55% of the message is based on body language and expressions. When you discuss things with your partner, 55% of the conversation is made up of body language rather than content. When you talk over Whatsapp or BBM, content becomes more important than tone or expression and miscommunication is bound to happen.

Consider the following

I suggested a rather radical idea to my couples or family members in conflict. Delete your partner’s Whatsapp or BBM contact completely, memorize their number and speak over voice call if absolutely necessary. Of course, I’m met with blank stares and eye rolls but the science speaks for itself. Communicating via instant messenger makes our lives easier and faster (and cheaper) but can do potential damage to our relationships, especially if things are a bit rocky at the moment. At very least, partners should come up with rules of engagement of their own. No fighting on the phone. At all. Remember that every fight, no matter how small, has the potential to leave a little scar on your relationship. So my advice to you is to put the phone down and wait until she/he gets home. Your relationship is more important than winning a Whatsapp war.

For more information see