Dialogues virtual and face-to-face

I have tried a few times to get involved in uncomfortable discussions online or in whatsapp groups, sometimes with people I know personally, sometimes with people I have not met face-to-face. I confess that it has generally not gone very well. Even in the groups where I have known the majority of people, I have been misunderstood and have misunderstood others. The conversation has landed us in unfamiliar territory, where the expectation we have of “being known” by others, of sharing a common history of face-to-face contact, has been hollowed out. We feel unfamiliar, even to ourselves, strangers communicating with other strangers.

As a result, I tend to “listen” online more than I “speak”. Lately I have noticed some unwelcome changes in myself as I “listen”.

Due to the nature of social media, it is possible for me to read many more stories than I could ever manage to physically listen to face-to-face. This could be seen as advantageous – an opportunity for me to be exposed to many people outside of my regular social circles, on a more level playing field, where we meet as equals in virtual rooms, whatever our background. And that is how I have chosen to see it.

Now, however, I am noticing a blunting of my emotions and empathy as I speed read through yet another story of personal suffering, pain, joy or triumph … I am beginning to feel less emotion and less connection to the people behind the words on the screen. It feels like they are less human, and I am less human.

I don’t want this. I am concerned that it could spill over the borders of the virtual world and into my everyday interactions.

In an effort to hold onto my humanness and theirs, I am limiting my exposure to the online groups. For now, I will read one person’s story today, and another person’s tomorrow. There may be a day where I read no-one’s story. I do this in the hope, not of preserving my privileged bubble, but of protecting my ability to really see the person that I meet face-to-face, to really hear their heart and not just their speech, to connect with their experience, to have the energy to have our lives intertwined and changed. I do this for the sake of nurturing face-to-face dialogue with tell-tale body language, facial expression, tone and volume of voice.

If you feel similar and would like to participate in or host a Diversity Dialogue this year, please leave a comment below or contact me – vera@tt-tt.co.za


  1. You raise an important point about bubbleising. I think the fear of the misunderstanders makes people tightly curate the people they have contact with on Facebook. We hope that the people who know us will take a moment to raise their faith in us.

    1. Yes, bubbleising is very tempting. It feels like a safer thing to do, and we hope that those we know would not jump to conclusions or take things personally. On the other hand, it would be interesting to explore the unintended risks/consequences involved in bubbleising…

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