Counseling Psychology Technology

The Relationship Gap in Social Media and Texting Platforms

Social Media | Texting | Emailing | Technology in Communication

Don't fall in the relationship gap created by digital forms of communication. Photo by Pixabay, public use domain.
Don’t fall in the relationship gap created by digital forms of communication. Photo by Pixabay, public use domain.

Mind the Gap.

You see the signs or hear the audible warnings inside of the London Tube, a reminder to pay attention to the gap between the train door and the platform. A misstep could result in serious injury.

I wish people would hear a similar audio byte, “Mind the Relationship Gap”, each time they send a lengthy text to someone other than themselves. Maybe it would save them the anguish and frustration that my clients talk about, saying, “I know  I shouldn’t do this, but I got into a texting fight with [name of person], and it was all downhill from there.”

It’s been brought to my attention how commonplace it is to see lengthy Social Media posts that fall into a similar pattern as long smartphone texts. What exactly is happening here when we pick up our devices and start finger tapping away? Are we accomplishing the things we think we are, and are we losing anything in the process? 

The Relationship Gap with Texting

First of all, why is texting so attractive to us? A few thoughts:

  1. Texting is convenient and accessible.
  2. Texting allows us to send micro communications out and get an answer without interrupting with a phone call or visit.
  3. Texting inserts a less-demanding virtual presence into your current activity, allowing you to divide your attention momentarily.
  4. Texting doesn’t require silence to listen to the other person, so it can be used in a variety of busy or noisy settings.

With all these wonderful features that texting provides us, why would there be a challenge or problem created by relying on texting as primary form of communication?

In short, the main challenge or problem comes from moving communication by text from a secondary or tertiary form to a primary form, which is what I am hearing people describe in their day-to-day operations. What was developed for micro communications – that is, simple questions and short statements meant to elicit a simple and short response – texting can be hijacked as a replacement communication form. The “talk du jour”, once reserved for face-to-face conversations, discussions, and even necessary arguments, moved to a Digital Space.

What happens in the Digital Space, whether on Social Media, in texts, or in emails, allows a relationship gap to grow. Without seeing the face of the other, we both send messages that fall short of our true thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, OR our abbreviated texts are misinterpreted as they pass through an emotional grid of the other.

And all this, even without the occasional “cluster” of an autocorrection!

Even with the help of an emoji, which was named Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2015, we still can’t always determine for sure what the sender means and feels. If you doubt this, recall a time when you decided after texting back and forth with someone to just pick up the phone and call the person. What was it that helped you determine you were wasting your time texting? Likely, it was because there was a relational gap of understanding forming.

But here, I am arguing one step further. The accumulation of hours of texting instead of relating more directly through speech, facial expressions, body language, and in many cases, touch, creates a relationship gap as well.

We can easily forget how much we communicate through touch if we shift away from direct forms of communication to digital forms. How is it that we can communicate so clearly in the firmness and length of a bear hug that he or she has been sorely missed, without saying a word? You can tell if you are welcome to join a group of people at a table by the warm of their eyes.

Over time, as we shift more and more of our communication to the Digital Space, we forget what it takes to connect with others.

Is It Relationship? 

One of the questions I get frequently is about what occurs during exchanges on Social Media, texting, and emails. Are you having a relationship? Are you truly relating?

Like old fashioned letters, communication through the Digital Space is an exchange of thoughts, a one-way communication tool that is used to send those thoughts, questions, stories, and responses to another. Unlike those letters, however, digital communication is now commonly shared with people we have never met. These exchanges of information have numerous gaps in them, and our minds have a tendency to “fill in the blanks” with what we want to see, think, and believe, positive or negative.

You can be “friends” with a celebrity you have never met in real life, such as a musician you admire, leave a comment on his or her Fan Page, and read all about that musician’s life until you feel like you know him or her quite well. The question is, would you call that a relationship? Would you call that a friendship? If your answer is no, then you must ask why.

For lack of a better word, I would describe those behaviors as “pseudo relationship”. Here, I use the meaning for pseudo as something that resembles the original thing, yet is not the real thing.

Similarly, when we shift to using texting, commenting on Social Media, and emailing as a primary communication tool to replace direct communication, there is this pseudo relating that occurs during these one-way thought exchanges. We can curate messages that hide important content, insult another person without having to witness our impact on the soul of the other, or allow ourselves to be baited into arguments carried on inside the head of the other, arguments that you were never meant to take on in this manner.

What would it mean to you to disengage from pseudo relationships and pseudo-relational behavior?

Rocking It In the Real World

To rock your communication in the real world, I suggest the following:

  1. Limit your digital communication to micro communications; that is simple, factual or fact-finding statements or questions that are not emotionally laden.
  2. Restrict important conversations and discussions to more direct and robust tools, such as a phone call, a video chat* (so you can see and hear the other and you can be seen and heard), and face-to-face.
  3. Address the pseudo-relational behaviors you are seeing from others or that you are engaging in, and name it as a reminder of what is actually occurring. Then, seek means to stop those behaviors.

I think the first two are pretty straight forward suggestions. The third one is much more difficult. Let me explain.

Because Social Media, texting, and emails are so much a part of the accepted modes of communicating in the business world, we don’t address the weaknesses of these same modes in our personal relationships. People who don’t know us well or at all are engaged in sharing their personal thoughts and opinions in ways that bypass how we normally form close relationships.

When you stop the pseudo-relating behaviors, you are faced with a choice. You can seek better understanding by using a better form of communication, or you terminate the behavior and call out that it isn’t useful. For example, if someone is using your Social Media feed to dump opinions on it in a way that you do not feel comfortable with, name that behavior, name the real relational gap that is occurring (i.e. “I don’t really know you, and I don’t feel we have the kind of relationship where I want to engage your opinions in this way”), and redirect the conversation within the limits and context of which the mode is to be used.


Name it: I got your text, and I don’t wish to respond back to you by text.

Redirect: I’d like to talk more directly about this later, when we can hear each other more clearly. How about a phone call later today?

As simple as this sounds, I have received good feedback on how this helps many people think through how to address the relationship gap that arises when using the many communication tools available to us through the digital world.

*Ironically, video chatting that allows you to see the other from at least the waist up captures enough body language, presence and attention, and other subtle forms of communication that the AMA and the APA have endorsed it as an acceptable substitute in many communications transactions between healthcare professionals and their clients.

By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, AIP Coach and PN1-NC, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 30+ years in healthcare (22+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is a two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018); she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for 100 Mile trail races and a backyard ultra. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, camping under the stars, and cooking real food.

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