Words Matter

Those of us with chronic illness often lament the divide that separates us all. If only people would understand that suffering is going on right under their noses. It can make us feel as fragile and affection-starved as a two-week-old puppy. A few caring words would be so deeply appreciated. I’m sorry you’re feeling bad; how can I help? So many of us flock to social media sites that offer the promise of that elusive gift of compassion. But how much do words really matter?

Social media seemed text-driven

At first glance, social media seemed to me to be a mostly text-driven space that reaches large numbers of readers quickly and inspires them to respond. But market research shows rather the contrary—that text isn’t what brings the most responses.

Images prompt more responses

Belle Beth Cooper’s article “7 Powerful Facebook Statistics You Should Know About” states that photos prompt more responses than video and text-only posts—a whopping 93% more. Text-only posts that include emoticons inspire more engagement than text alone, and shorter written posts get more responses than longer ones. Keeping posts below 250 words can result in 60% more responses, and cutting it down to 80 words can boost responses as high as 66%.

It’s all about persuasion

This is why political ads are so persuasive during campaign season. A provocative photo captioned with an equally provocative soundbite. The reaction is immediate and visceral, and campaign researchers know that gut reaction gets carried straight to the polls. Attack ad or Facebook post, it’s all about persuasion. Selling something --an idea, a candidate, a graduation picture—or getting people to give/buy something—a donation to someone’s medical expenses,  or buy this doggie scarf and your money will go straight to a no-kill animal shelter. In other words, keep it short and sweet and find a way to attach a cat photo if you want to engage the public and promote your agenda. But how does that apply to health groups and how we relate to each other?

Ways in which we engage as a community

I am a member of several online MS groups. We engage each other using photos, memes, and short and long narratives, with and without emoticons. Although donations are sometimes solicited, our posts are mostly personal narratives about our problems, triumphs and tips for living better with MS. But there are plenty of limitations built into this writers’ medium. Whether using short or long text, users are not equally adept at expressing themselves via the written word. More distressing to me is the emphasis on being brief and to-the-point. That kind of writing is great for selling beer, but when we get used to reading a style that amounts to ad copy, we have less patience for the nuances and deeper meanings in longer text. Worse still, brevity doesn’t provide enough context in a patient’s story to help readers understand and respond appropriately. They need the space and feel the permission to tell their story in as many words as it takes. But there is a factor besides persuasive posting that makes the most difference.

Are we compassionate listeners?

What kind of readers are we? We can equate it to listening. Patient, non-judgmental, sympathetic listening is the pathway to compassion and understanding. Likewise, careful, objective, sympathetic reading is key to providing the narrator with a supportive response. Understanding and goodwill are the glue that binds us in our online experience as readers. What kind of post we put out there is important, but what kind of readers we are, equally so.

Words do matter

Some MS patients have posted that words don’t matter whenever we complain about the obtuse, rude remarks we get. They claim to just ignore clueless language and focus on going about their business, wisely stating that they can’t set the whole world straight, after all. That takes having quite a thick skin, and if you can develop it, that’s great. I maintain that words do matter very much. Whether or not we have the ability to ignore the words of others, the words we put out to the world matter a lot. At the end of the day, I want to know in my heart that I didn’t hurt anybody and that I made one person feel better for having taken the risk to reach out.

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