What ever happened to “You’re welcome”? The beauty of that statement is that it signals the end of a conversation in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, it’s been lost in the relentless migration of communication to online platforms.
Who signs off a text, email or thread in an intra-office chat like Slack that way? Instead, we find ourselves mired in a constant back and forth of typed exchanges that feel more like conversation interruptus than discrete communications.
There are no more off-the-cuff exclamations of “Have a nice weekend!” followed by a conversation-ending exit from the building. Nowadays a sign-off can lead to multiple back-and-forth emails that roll right into Monday.
All of this leads to an endless stream of messages that are distracting and rarely satisfying but nonetheless demanding of our attention, particularly in work relationships. Worse yet, the resulting overload invites countless new opportunities for confusion, anxiety and, ironically, miscommunication.
COVID-19 has only amplified our use of electronic forms of communication and the problem of how to resolve such communication appropriately. During the pandemic, when it’s assumed people have nowhere to go, ending a conversation can seem especially harsh — or, if you’re worried about job security, unwise. There are no more off-the-cuff exclamations of, “Have a nice weekend!” followed by a conversation-ending exit from the building. Nowadays a sign-off can lead to multiple back-and-forth emails that roll right into Monday morning.
What's missing is a universally accepted etiquette guide for how to gracefully terminate a conversation in the online realm. Until that comes along, though, it's worth exploring how different personalities approach the onslaught of electronic messages. The failure to communicate well is often the result of a mismatch between sender and receiver.
To help my patients navigate the crush of constant communications, I’ve identified four distinct personality types for how people handle the never-ending e-talk cycle: well-meaning, worried, withholding and Walton wannabe (as in the ’70s TV show — this one usually requires a bit of explanation for my younger patients). These descriptions improve their insight into their own behavior and that of those they are in conversation with so they can move toward less fraught communication.
The well-meaning person responds to every email or text with a desire to make sure the other person’s needs are being met. This can be done by answering within the body of the work in a different color, adding emojis or exclamation points throughout or overexplaining every answer. Interchanges with the well-meaning person can be satisfying and even gratifying, but they are rarely brief. That creates difficulties for both parties.
Often, my well-meaning patients tell me how hurt and — eventually — resentful they are that others don’t reciprocate their efforts. They believe that being more to the point would be unkind, rather than seeing that over-giving invites being taken for granted. Instead, being more judicious in their exchanges increases the likelihood that they can maintain both a sense of well-being and freedom from resentment. The receiver of these communications is well-advised to lay out clear boundaries about what is actually helpful in a response, thereby improving the communication flow for both.
Motivated by anxiety rather than the people-pleasing need of the “well-meaning” responder, the worrier easily gets caught up overthinking or misinterpreting messages. He receives a “Have a good weekend” from his boss and he wants to write back, “Thank you, you too,” but worries that the boss’ email box is so full that she won’t appreciate another message. But he also doesn’t want to look unfriendly or disengaged, so he struggles with how to reply. Finally, he writes, “You too,” then spends the weekend worrying that the boss won’t even remember who he is or what he was referring to. Is he supposed to care about his boss’ weekend, or is that stalking?
Once I point out to these patients that their anxiety interferes with their ability to read the content of the text accurately, we can then explore the question, “What are you most afraid of?” Separating fact from fiction enables the worried person to write and read communications with greater accuracy. As a reader, managing someone’s anxiety can be exhausting, so if you sense that the writer is the worried type, it is imperative to address the emotion before replying to the content. Addressing their fear head-on rather than pretending it doesn’t exist avoids stoking the fire.
The withholding person often has an unfounded sense of importance that isolates her. She manages her incoming communications by not answering or being so brief in replying that the writer is left confused. Usually the tone is difficult to interpret and there is an abundance of abbreviations. Not knowing where to turn, employees struggle with how to get the information they need while not annoying their boss or co-workers with endless requests for clarification.
Typically, the withholding person’s expectation is that silence should be understood as agreement and the end of the discussion, despite never making that clear. The withholding person tends to speak in a disparaging way about the people trying to communicate with him and takes no responsibility for the upset he creates. Rather than concurring with these patients about the injustice of all these people bothering them, I challenge them to communicate their expectations more clearly — and to keep in mind that spelling out an entire sentence will actually save time in the long run. The receiver of their communications, on the other hand, is best served by reinforcing whatever helpful information they do get and asking directly for more complete answers.
Then there are the Walton wannabes. Every episode of “The Waltons” ended with each member of the family calling out, “Goodnight!” from their bedrooms. The 2020 incarnation, in contrast, is in love with reply all and group texts, generally stemming from an underlying need for attention. But the overuse of these blanket responses in the work setting is a surefire way to fill someone’s inbox and make it difficult to bring any conversation to a close. Worse yet, in their need for universal approval, my Walton wannabe patients keep score on who responds and who doesn’t.
Their desire for agreement tends to bog down the ability to move an agenda forward. Helping them accept that more tailored responses and requests are actually a better strategy for success can free them to be more productive. Receivers of unwanted group threads, for their part, need to speak up and establish protocols for when reply all is a useful tool and when a group text is preferred. By not answering these unwanted messages, dissatisfaction grows on both sides.
Despite our differences, almost all of us recognize the need to put a period on our conversations. Until we establish new cultural norms to help us manage the flow of e-talk, maybe we could resurrect the tried and true, “You’re welcome.”