Comparison of Electronic Mediated and Face-to-Face Communication

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By Sarah Stevenson, MA- The Tini Yogini

Humans currently live in a time like no other. The technological age has opened opportunities for connection that in the past would never be possible (Alberts et al., 2016). People isolated from others due to illness or living in remote areas can now stay connected to loved ones and healthcare providers through phone calls, blog posts, zoom conferences, texting, and social media (Rosenstiel, 2010). The Covid-19 pandemic opened the eyes of the entire world when each was required to quarantine from others, and the only way to get groceries, speak to loved ones, and even see a doctor was dependent on technological communication. All these modern modes of communication cause a person to ponder if humans are sacrificing the benefits of face-to-face interaction for convenience and if this is beneficial or detrimental to a person. This paper will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of interactive media, specifically, email compared to face-to-face interaction.  

Are the modes media-rich or media deficient?

Media richness, also known as information richness, involves a message’s ability to carry over through mediums without ambiguity (Lyons & Carr, 2019). According to Daft and Lengel (1986), a medium’s richness is dependent on: the capacity to use multiple (both verbal and nonverbal) information cues, personalization, aptitude for instantaneous feedback, and amount of language variation. According to Daft and Lengel’s four characteristics, face-to-face interaction would possess the most information richness of all forms of communication. In a face-to-face interaction, it is personal, both individuals are displaying multiple verbal and nonverbal cues to convey a message, and feedback is in real-time (De Stefani & De Marco, 2019). With face-to-face interactive language, it is clear when a person is interested in what another person is saying, they lean in, their eyes get more expansive, and they offer reassuring verbal cues like, “I see”, “tell me more”, or “ah-ha”. A person’s tone of voice can contain empathy, sarcasm, anger, excitement, or sadness, making the message, “I don’t know,” mean different things in different contexts (Tiwari & Tiwari, 2012). Research has noticed that these nonverbal and verbal cues can be lost in text messages, emails, blog posts, and even phone calls (Braun et al., 2019).

Email is considered media deficient because the message is not conveyed face-to-face, lacking multiple information cues, personalization, and aptitude for instantaneous feedback (Braun et al., 2019). Problems arise when the recipient is unable to read the sender’s tone. A person’s feeling could easily be hurt if a message was sent with sarcasm but taken as anger or disrespect (Escartin et al., 2013). There is a time delay with email, so feedback is not instantaneous, which can be misread as ignoring or disrespectful. Personalization can vary with an email. At times a group message is sent out to save time and reach several people at once. Or one might send a birthday message to their father with a family picture that is quite personal. The more ambiguous or room for personal interpretation the message has, the less it is media-rich.

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Synchronous and Asynchronous Messages

If a message is synchronous, it is more interactive, done in real-time, one knows when the recipient has seen the message, and there is typically a quicker response with a phone call, zoom call, text message, or chatting in an instant message. Face-to-face interaction gives both communicators the social advantage of insight into each other by seeing body language, facial expressions, and hearing a person’s tone of voice, all things lost in email interaction (Behrens & Kret, 2019). Sitting across from another person physically has the social advantage of personal attention and privacy with no physical conversation record. One can quickly see if the other person is attending to them with eye contact and verbal cues, building trust and rapport (Prochazkova & Kret, 2017).

Email, on the other hand, can only be used asynchronously. Messages sent over email are not immediate communication; one does not know when or if the recipient has received the message. The good thing about email and its asynchronous attributes is that it gives a person time to think before speaking, which has a social advantage of appearing professional to the recipient. Individuals are less likely to say things they wish they hadn’t and can create a message without distractions. Email permits the person to send a professional and competent message because they can use grammar and spell checks. Since email does not require that individuals are in the same physical space, one can transcend time zones, physical proximity, and even language barriers giving one the social advantage of connecting with more people (Jhala & Menon, 2021).

The bad thing about asynchronous messages is the ambiguity that rises without immediate feedback and verbal and nonverbal cues (Braun et al., 2019). This vagueness can cause misunderstandings that would otherwise not occur in face-to-face interactions. The time delay could cause messages to time out, so email is not the ideal communication model if something needs to be attended to immediately. The sender does not know if the receiver prioritizes the message being sent and does not know the message was read until the receiver responds (Jhala & Menon, 2021).

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Anonymity and Pseudo Anonymity of Face-to-Face and Email Communication

Anonymity means a person’s identity is hidden, and there is no traceable way to reach them. People who remain anonymous do not share their name, age, country of origin for the sake of privacy (Nissenbaum, 1999). Pseudo-anonymity occurs when a person can hide their identity from the public, but social media providers like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have access to their personal information (Alberts et al., 2016). Face-to-face interaction cannot provide complete anonymity because one can see their communication partner’s physical identity. People could lie about things like age and name and withhold other personal information to remain partially anonymous.

An email has pseudo-anonymity, meaning the sender and possibly receiver may not reveal personal information that would identify them. Still, if needed, the email can be traced with spyware to a specific location like one’s home or place of business (Concordia University, 2011). When a person sets up an email account with free providers like Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook, they could give fake information, hiding their primary identity, but law enforcement can identify the exact location linked to an IP address. One could set up an email account with Protonmail which is based in Switzerland, making it harder to trace a person, but again, if law enforcement needs access to the email due to criminal charges, they will likely have access to the person (Sardá et al., 2019). It suffices to say, if one needs complete anonymity, then email is not the ideal mode of communication.  

When Email is Advantageous and When it is Disadvantageous

Email is both advantageous and disadvantageous. One of the best things about email is the convenience (Kupritz & Cowell, 2011). An email can be sent anywhere in the world if both sender and recipient have internet service. Email can be sent at any time a day without worrying about disturbing someone’s sleep or prior obligations. One can send a message to multiple recipients simultaneously, saving time for both the sender and the recipient. Email is also less expensive than in-person meetings, phone calls, or zoom conferences (Bowden & Galindo-Gonzalez, 2015).

Email is disadvantageous when HIPPA laws exist because of the lack of complete privacy protection; an email getting into the wrong hands by accident would be a violation (Adler, 2021). Messages sent over email can seem less personal, especially if it is a message sent to many people at one time (Newport, 2016). One never knows when the receiver has read the message. An urgent message may be lost in a sea of other emails a person gets in a day. Verbal and nonverbal cues are lost, which can cause misunderstandings leading to conflict (Kupritz & Cowell, 2011).

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Email and Social Media’s Influence on Identity

Before social media, identity appeared to be less fluid (Dumont, 2010). A young man who grew up on a dairy farm would likely be the one who would take over the farm and be a dairy farmer, just like his father, grandfather, and great grandfather. A person grows up in a specific place, surrounded by a particular group of people which helps to shape their identity or personality. But research shows that when those same people are exposed to different environments and experiences, their personal identity shifts (Onorato & Turner, 2004). Email and social media have expanded a person’s ability to interact with different people worldwide, increasing the possibilities for developing new identities. A person’s personality is no longer dependent on face-to-face interaction and can now be influenced by electronic mediated communication (Dumont, 2010). That young boy that lives on a dairy farm is no longer locked into becoming a dairy farmer by default. He can now entertain the idea of a completely different life depending on who he is communicating with and what he is exposed to on social media (Alberts et al., 2016).


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By The Tini Yogini

I hold a Masters degree in psychology with an emphasis in behavior modification & have worked with individuals in the public & private sector for 20 years. I am a certified Yoga Instructor RYT & sole proprietor of my own health and wellness business for the last 14 years built from the ground up. I implement Cognitive Behavior Therapy theories to help clients eliminate self-destructive unconscious behavior patterns and replace them with positive life affirming behavior patterns. I am also a professional writer and have spent the last 10 years writing articles about implementing research-based behavior strategies to positively enhance one’s life. I teach workshops throughout the United States that teach individuals how to flourish and thrive.

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