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A concerned family member recently asked me to intervene in a political discussion gone sour on Facebook between two relatives.

“I can’t,” I responded, “I have a root canal scheduled.”

“Really?” she replied.

“No, but I’d rather have that than log on to Facebook,” I said.

The concerned family member shared some of the snide remarks between the two people shouting at each other online. I was saddened and disheartened.

But then a question came to mind: Why is it so difficult to have meaningful conversations on social media? The answer is quite simple: The medium is not conducive to such an end.

Here are three reasons why:

Meaningful communication requires empathy. A genuine exchange of ideas means learning to see things from the perspective of our conversation partner(s). Doing this well entails asking questions and listening intently. Social media, however, doesn’t foster this kind of discussion. Rather, it leads us to reduce our friends and family to nothing more than the position(s) they hold. The result is failing to acknowledge others’ humanity. To the extent that we are guilty of this, we must repent and aim to do better. The True Human calls us to treat others humanely.

Meaningful communication means thinking carefully and responding thoughtfully. To do this, we must read and think for an extended period of time. But this is nearly impossible on social media where everything is reactionary and everyone is in Refutation Mode.[1] The goal on social media, it seems, is to dominate and demean rather than learn and understand. To make matters worse, most people’s responses aren’t well thought out or well written. First drafts rarely are. Which reinforces my point: Meaningful communication requires patience because thinking well takes time. It cannot be rushed.

Philosopher James W. Sire is right:

Thinking takes time—at least for most human beings. Unlike a giant computer that grinds out inevitable answers according to programs, [human beings] are both limited and fallible. Bias, preconceived but erroneous ideas, hasty skipping over relevant details, inordinate desires for a given outcome, fear of the implications of an idea, unwillingness to accept the consequences of correct reasoning: all these and more stand in the way of the mind’s reaching worthy judgments.”[2]

Our responses to those with whom we disagree, therefore, must be the result of patient reading, and a non-anxious inner calm or interior life.

Meaningful communication requires engaging others wisely. Proverbs 16:21 reminds us that “sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.” The inverse is also true: Harsh and condemning language is ineffectual and deepens division. Increasing persuasiveness, then, calls for showing a genuine interest in the lives of others—especially of those with whom we disagree. And remember: Vulnerability invites intimacy. Rather than trying to be right, maybe we can let our defenses down and try to connect with our conversation partner at the heart level. And there’s the rub: We can’t do that on social media because we can’t look our friends in the eyes.

I believe conversations matter. I want mine to echo into eternity. For this reason, I believe face-to-face is best. But even as I do this, I must remember that my identity isn’t found in being right, but in being righteous in Christ.

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1] Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (NY: Currency, 2017), 18.

[2] James W. Sire, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 83–84.