Five Rules for Mixing Relationships and Technology

You're sending a message loud and clear, and you don't even know you're doing it.

By , Columnist

I'll start this article with a charming anecdote from a time when the Internet was an urban myth, cell phones were as big as toasters, and bangs defied gravity. The year was 1983, and my parents were in a long-distance relationship.

Long-distance calls were expensive, so they only spoke on the phone once a week. Their primary form of communication throughout the two years that they dated was letters. Hand-written (or, if they were feeling frisky, typewritten), postage-stamped, snail-mail letters.

Let's flash forward to 2011 and think about how much has changed. There are countless ways to communicate no matter where you are in relation to another: Cell phone calls, text messages on your personal cell, text messages on your work BlackBerry, picture messages, email on your computer, email on your smartphone, video chats on your computer, video chats on your cell, instant messaging on your computer, instant messaging on your cell, MySpace, Facebook, Facebook chat, Twitter, blogs, video blogs, online message boards and forums, YouTube videos, links to Youtube videos on Facebook, links to Youtube videos sent via email to your smartphone which you then post to Twitter and watch together with your boyfriend while Skyping on your iPad...I'm running out of breath.

It reminds me of the part in He's Just Not That Into You where Drew Barrymore's character bemoans how difficult keeping in touch with a new interest is: "I had this guy leave me a voicemail at work, so I called him at home, and then he emailed me to my BlackBerry, and so I texted him to his cell, and now you just have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies. It's exhausting."

And that's just it. Managing all of these options is hard. How are you supposed to know which one is appropriate in any situation? Are you allowed to friend request your new interest on Facebook? What about following them on Twitter? Is it stalkerish to Google them before a date? Can you Google Chat while at work? Is it flirtatious or annoying to post a YouTube video on their Facebook wall?

Before you start panicking, let me tell you the principle that's at the heart of these questions and what every person dating in 2011 has to contend with: The medium is the message.

It's an old premise that's at the foundation of communication theory, and broken down it means that in addition to the message you're sending, the way in which you choose to send it also has meaning.

Take, for example, getting dumped by someone via text message. In addition to the actual message ("I don't think we should see each other anymore") the person is silently saying through their choice of medium, "I don't care about you enough or respect you enough to do this in person. You aren't worth more than 30 seconds of my thumb's time and energy." Ouch.

There's no time when you feel the pressure more than when you're first getting to know someone. Dating becomes infinitely more confusing and stressful when you're trying to say the right thing AND say it through the right channel.

So how do we do this right? How do we carefully navigate all of these mediums while still convincing the other person that we're fun, interesting, and generally fantastic? Well, thankfully I've drawn up a few rules for mixing technology and relationships to help you find your way. Below, find some "dos," "don'ts," and some unintended messages to avoid sending.

Not All Technology is Created Equal: Do stick to emails, phone calls, and text messages to begin with. You already know which mediums you prefer, but you'll also learn which are best for your new person. If carrying on text message conversations seems forced, what is talking on the phone like? Or if they aren't big phone talkers, how natural is the conversation in an email exchange? Don't follow them on Twitter or friend request them on Facebook right away. The unintended message? You could appear desperate and over-eager if you ambush them from all angles. Get to know someone before pouncing on their online profiles.

Everything in Moderation: Just because you can communicate with another person in a million different ways does not mean that you should. Do stick to a few select technologies that work well for you. Don't try to mix different technologies like Drew Barrymore's character. If someone emails you, email them back. Unless you want a convoluted chain of dialogue, then avoid responding to an email with a text or Facebook message. Being all over the place with your channels of communications can send someone another unintended message: "I'm spastic and all over the place in life, too."

Don't Ignore What's Obvious: All of these technologies can make it difficult to read someone's signals. Don't be fooled. It's very easy to talk to someone if you want to talk to them. Sending a text takes less than 30 seconds, and picking up the phone to ask you on a date takes five minutes. If you aren't hearing from someone regularly, it's because they don't care to communicate with you regularly. If you're the one initiating all contact, the unintended message you're sending is, "I like you way more than you like me." Dating and relationships are about balance. If you're the only one doing the work, it's because you're the only one who wants to. Spend time on people who are eager to spend time on you.

Face Time is Always the Best Time: Nothing can replace good old fashioned in-person contact. Technology leaves out important cues like body language and non-verbal communication, which is absolutely key for determining if you have chemistry with someone. Don't spend all day emailing and texting and wasting your life on Facebook. Do step away from all technology for a while until you can see your new person in real life. It will build anticipation and make the time spent together that much better.

Save the Big Stuff: Don't break up with someone in a text message. It's not classy. Do show others respect by telling them important things in person. Whether it's that you aren't interested anymore, or that you got a promotion, or that you'd like to introduce them to your sister, wait to tell or ask until you're in their company. You'll be able to gauge their reaction when you ask them to meet your parents, or see how they respond to the news that you're buying a new place. Seeing how someone reacts to the important parts of your life is critical when deciding if they'll make a good partner in the long run.

Mixing relationships and technology is kind of like mixing alcohol. If you get it right, you've got a tasty treat on your hands. If you overdo it, you're scaring everyone in a 20-foot radius and sharing way too much information with near strangers. Easy does it, and remember that the words you're saying are only half of what you're really communicating.

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Rachel East is a freelance writer specializing in relationships and relationship advice. In addition to her regular column on TMR, Rachel contributes relationship content to the Levo League, formerly known as Pretty Young Professional, a website for young, professional and ambitious women. Her writing…

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