Oscar Wilde was once quoted as saying, “Man is least himself when he walks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” It seems that even back when “text” was what made up a novel and a “tweet” was the sound of a bird; we have always felt most comfortable fully expressing ourselves, truthfully and confidently, behind a mask. The masks we have to choose from today are aplenty. Some of us find masks to wear for only a few hours a day, for others its part of our job, but with the ever increasing use of technology and social media—the most interesting masks are the ones in which people choose to wear every time they communicate with the online world.
More and more I prefer email communication over any other. I like the shield it creates between direct communication like a phone call or a face-to-face meeting where immediate responses are expected. Email provides me with the luxury of answering requests at my own pace and on my own time. It also gives me a paper trail of conversations that is much easier to search and recall than anything merely spoken. I don’t argue that there are times where a quick phone call can clear up what would have become a lengthy email chain of confusion or that a sit-down meeting can easily knock off a laundry list of tasks in record time. But aside from these particular circumstances, email is my mask – and I feel most confident, professional and organized when working behind this visage.
Email is only the first of many technological masks we can choose to communicate from behind every day. Can you identify yours? Think how much easier it is to write out a difficult conversation over an email than to do it by phone or in person. I admit I still create an outline of a “script” when I have to communicate some difficult news that I know will upset the other person – even when I do it by phone. This mask allows me to say everything I want in the best way possible without forgetting or stumbling. I don’t do it with the intent to be insincere; I do it with the intent to minimize negative feelings and to organize my thoughts.
But what about the most fascinating mask of all – social media? This is where communicating with friends, acquaintances, members of your extended family – and even exes and enemies – is made a lot easier than doing so in “real life.” With this mask we tend to share overly personal information, comment or message people we’d never pick up the phone to call and even develop what can feel like a personal relationship with someone we’ve never met in person. If you don’t believe me, just wait until your next high school reunion where someone you haven’t spoken to in years will come up to you and somehow know your job title, marital status and the last thing you ate. Social media is a masquerade ball after all. Just because you’re wearing a mask, doesn’t mean you’re the only one. People are also sharing more information with you on social media than they might ever feel comfortable repeating to you again in person.
So what’s the incentive to be so confident and honest behind this front? What are we hiding from? The answer to this might be as unique as the person who’s being asked. Introspectively I believe I’m hiding from the fear of appearing disorganized, unprofessional or misinformed. When I can write it out and proof read it before I click send, it gives me time to think through what I’m saying and revise it if I so wish. Real-life, instantaneous responses do not afford me this same luxury. For social media, I think it’s the fear of having to witness a reaction we didn’t expect or having someone reply negatively. We’re not as afraid to be honest because we never have to witness an immediate response. We can say something and walk away and not have to hope that someone laughs at our joke or supports our rant about a bad day at work.
What do these technological masks mean for the welfare of face-to-face communication? I don’t think anything can replace the meaning of a conversation held in person. For the most sensitive topics – whether negative or positive – the ability to look someone in the eye and take in the expression in their eyes, smile and body language is crucial. And while technology can make a person sitting across the world feel like they’re sitting right across the table, it has yet to recreate this important aspect of “real” communication. While Oscar Wilde’s quote rings so very true, I hope that during the key moments in life in which we need to, we can be so bold as to remove our mask and be just as honest walking in our own person.