Interpreting Silence on Social Media and E-mail

 In Pei Blog

What online silence can teach us about ourselves.

A number of years ago, I was sharing some very personal issues with a friend.  After a couple of minutes, the phone grew quiet.

I paused in fear.  Had I shared too much, or inappropriately?  Then I started to feel annoyed and even resentful.  Why didn’t my friend say something — anything — even if they didn’t fully understand or accept everything I had shared?

And then I heard the dial tone.

Oops.  We had been disconnected, and I had probably been talking to a dead phone line for a full minute.

I had to laugh at how passionately I must have been trying to explain myself… to absolutely nobody.  And I was surprised by the strong emotions I felt when I heard silence on the other end of the line.  Fear… annoyance… even resentment!

This taught me an important lesson that stays with me to this day:

Listen to the silence.

Did I almost just reference a song from the 1990s?

But in all seriousness, silence can teach us a great deal about ourselves as leaders.

In this day and age, these lessons more often come digitally — by way of e-mail, texting or social media.  Think about it:

How many times have you wondered why a friend or family member hasn’t e-mailed or texted you back yet?

How many times have you posted something on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and wondered why it was taking so long to get “likes” or responses?

All of us have probably been there, and know how it feels.  But the reasons for online silence are so varied that it’s incredible.  Here are some that I’ve heard from people I know:

  • They actually never sent an e-mail, because the draft got stuck in their “outbox.”
  • Their privacy settings on Facebook were such that almost nobody could see their posts on their newsfeed.
  • They thought they posted something publically on Twitter, but it was sent instead as a personal message to one person.

And of course, here are some very common reasons for why people don’t respond:

  • They were out of the country and didn’t have access to e-mail.
  • They were on vacation and weren’t responding to e-mails until after they returned.
  • They had a health emergency and all their e-mail correspondence was postponed for a week.

The point is, there are so many reasons for online silence that it almost feels futile to speculate.  But the real value I’ve learned in all of this doesn’t lie in others and their reasons.  It lies in us, and what we can learn about ourselves in this process!

When you experience silence online, what’s your first reaction?

Think back to the phone call I described earlier.  When I first heard silence on the phone, the first thing I did was second-guess myself.  I wondered if I had shared too much, and how it would be received.

Have you ever shared something online, and then immediately wanted to take it back?  Have you ever wondered if people would accept you, if you really took a chance and opened up?

Back to my phone call.  My second reaction was to feel annoyed and even resentful that my friend wasn’t saying anything in response to me.  I just wanted to hear something, even if it wasn’t all positive… rather than feel alone.

Have you ever sent out an e-mail to friends about something personal and vulnerable, and just wished more people would write back, even if they didn’t know what to say?

Silence can be a gift, because it allows us to tap into what our biggest needs are.  It’s a window into our souls.  Just from ten seconds of silence during a phone call, I was able to see very clearly what was most important to me as a leader.  Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

So the next time you experience silence online, and start reacting or feeling emotions about it, pay attention to your first and second reactions.  Maybe you’ll discover that you fear rejection, or that you can’t stand silence and need to try doing something — anything — to provoke a response of any kind from people.  Or maybe you’ll find that you feel peace and are just grateful for the one person who noticed and responded to you.

Regardless, we can learn a great deal about ourselves and our leadership… if we learn to listen to the silence.

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