Digital messages are fuelling all sorts of deceit

Justin Thomas asks: what to do with those bulk-sent Ramadan blessings messages that will soon fill our inbox?

Digital communications are fuelling insincerity. Sarah Dea / The National
Powered by automated translation

Occasionally I receive electronic messages that are so insincere they might as well have been scripted by a robot. These messages make all the right noises but tend to be over reliant on clichéd phraseology and gratuitously garnished with what the sender believes to be the latest buzz words – synergy, stakeholder, leverage, neuro – the list is long. I have lost count of the number of times that I’ve been “cordially” invited to x, or given a “gentle” reminder about y. This latter phrase, gentle reminder, hints rather menacingly that the sender is perhaps also capable of more brutal reminders.

I call this insincere, convention-bound, style of communicating “corporate cant”. The historian Ben Wilson describes cant as a four-letter word that has all but faded from the English language. But it originated from the Norman French for chanting, meaning a type of formulaic speech used to mask the absence of genuine devotion. Cant is decorum without sincerity. It is jargon masquerading as substance. Cant is well choreographed verbiage bereft of authenticity. The word may not have survived but the practice is thriving and is perfectly suited to our increasingly digitised existence.

At the start of Ramadan each year, I receive numerous text messages wishing me things like: “Choicest blessings on the auspicious occasion of Ramadan”. These are obviously “one size fits all” messages sent to all the contacts in the sender’s address book. Rather than respond directly to the sender’s greeting, I suspect many of the recipients probably just, in turn, group-text their own generic Ramadan messages.

We have to question the value of such shallow digitised greetings. Are we really wishing each other well? How much heart and soul is involved in such effortless cut and paste, bulk communication? It’s easy to imagine a future where we pre-program our phones with the following instruction: If Date = Dec 25 send “wishing you the sincerest seasons greetings” to contact group = “friends and family”. What would that really mean to the recipients of such thoughtless preprogrammed messages?

Worse than thoughtless friends, however, are thoughtful corporations. These faceless commercial entities carefully craft cant-filled communications that market their brands under the diaphanous pretext of wishing us a blessed Ramadan, Eid, Christmas or Hanukkah. I think I now get more good wishes from businesses than from friends and family.

Digital communications are fuelling insincerity. Many of us who use social networks such as Instagram, snapchat and Facebook engage in a type of cyber-posturing designed to make us appear cooler, quirkier, happier than we really are. “OMG the weekend was bliss, wondering if I can recover in time for round two (smiley face, winking)”. Then we have “celebrity” tweets, which are meant to be the uncensored musings of the fabulously famous when in reality they are often no more than the carefully crafted sound bites of a public relations team.

The full spectrum of deceit is flourishing in our digital world – from the culture of cant to new virulent strains of cyber criminality. One explanation for the rise of cant is that current communication technology makes it easier for us to be insincere.

Decades of research in social psychology show that lying to a person’s face is much harder than lying over the phone or by email. One study titled, The finer points of lying online: E-mail versus pen and paper, tested the idea and found that the lie rate by email was 50 per cent higher. Perhaps when we digitise we also depersonalise or dehumanise?

But what to do with those bulk-sent Ramadan blessings messages that will soon fill my inbox? This year I have decided to respond to each generic group-sent message with a very detailed, personalised and well meant greeting. It takes time, I know, but people are worth it.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas