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If it's going to trigger them, don't send it

Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amygdala#/media/File:Amygdala_-_DK_ATLAS.png

I turned 40 last summer and, while apparently 40 is the new 30, I still feel “old”, especially with two teenagers in the house now. 😊

I’ve been reflecting on the classic question: “What advice would I give my younger self?”

There is an immediate topic that comes to mind: written communication.

While I’m technically a young Gen-Xer in the Oregon Trail Generation, in many ways I’m the older brother of millennials. I should have spoken up sooner. Everyone in my generation should have been talking about this more!  

Back in the day when people wrote physical letters, there was a LOT more thought put into each word.

Now with texts, social media posts, DMs, comment threads, chat apps, emails, etc… it’s WAY too easy to press send.

Here is a simple principle I - and many others - have developed the hard way over the past few decades:

If it’s going to trigger them, don’t send it.

It really is that simple.

Instead, meet up with them in person, over a video call, or over the phone (in that order of preference).

This can be both for good things and bad things.

The more nerdy/scientific version of the principle is:

If it’s going to trigger their amygdala, don’t send it.

The amygdala is the part of our brains that acts in the “formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events”.

(^^ highlighted in green)

Whether people are aware of it or not, all our past trauma (large or small), has an extremely powerful effect on our ability to be rational.

FYI: triggering stimuli hijack our amygdala

This response flow is important and helpful to understand:

In Daniel Goleman’s 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, he coined the term Amygdala Hijack:

The output of sense organs is first received by the thalamus. Part of the thalamus' stimuli goes directly to the amygdala or "emotional/irrational brain", while other parts are sent to the neocortex or "thinking/rational brain". If the amygdala perceives a match to the stimulus, i.e., if the record of experiences in the hippocampus tells the amygdala that it is a fight, flight or freeze situation, then the amygdala triggers the HPA (hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and hijacks the rational brain. This emotional brain activity processes information milliseconds earlier than the rational brain, so in case of a match, the amygdala acts before any possible direction from the neocortex can be received. If, however, the amygdala does not find any match to the stimulus received with its recorded threatening situations, then it acts according to the directions received from the neocortex. When the amygdala perceives a threat, it can lead that person to react irrationally and destructively.”

Indeed, we tend to “react irrationally and destructively” when our amygdala has been hijacked.

So, if you are going to send something in writing to someone, it’s generally best to keep it as non-triggering as possible unless they have specifically requested otherwise.

(As a side point, journalists, bloggers, and “influencers” on social media intuitively understand that triggering someone’s amygdala is good for attention and clicks.)

Now, as I mentioned above, this principle also applies to positive triggering. While it’s the amygdala that causes someone to suddenly burst out in laughter to something funny, if you are delivering extremely good news to someone you know, it’s best to do that in person, on a video call, or over the phone (again, in that order of preference).  

Communication transfer bandwidth

Part of the reason why it’s best to communicate potentially triggering things with people in-person - or at least on video chat or over the phone - is because a vast majority of communication is nonverbal.

This means if you are writing things in text, you are limiting yourself to only working with a small throughput of human communication. That speed and context void is easily filled by people’s fears/insecurities surfaced by their amygdala. They will tend to assume the worst intentions behind your words, especially if they have traumatic backgrounds (and most people do!).

Instead, choosing a medium that allows higher communication throughput when discussing difficult/triggering/nuanced topics facilitates a faster “intention/context” transfer so the meaning behind the words (i.e. the majority of what you are probably trying to convey) can be understood faster and more comprehensively.

Thus, my personal communication preferences with friends/family/colleagues - especially when discussing triggering topics - are roughly in the following order (i.e. from more intimate/relational to less):

  • In-person (long, leisurely dinner...food is magical between humans)
  • In-person (breakfast/brunch)
  • In-person (lunch)
  • In-person (coffee/drink)
  • In-person (walk in the park or something active)
  • In-person (office)
  • Video chat
  • Phone call
  • Hand-written physical letter
  • Printed physical letter
  • Text message
  • Chat DM
  • Email
  • Chat group comment
  • Social media comment
  • Social media post

Or - considering it from the opposite direction, here's a small poem / mantra I’ve had in my head for years:

Why send it when you can call?

Why call when you can video chat?

Why video chat when you can grab a drink?

Why grab a drink when you can grab lunch?

Why grab lunch when you can do brunch?

Why do brunch when you can have dinner?

Studying cognition is important

Finally, I’ll be writing more about cognition in future articles (subscribe here to follow along), but in the meantime I’d highly recommend Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow and Annie Duke’s book Thinking in Bets. Combined with a basic understanding of how stimulus responses work through the thalamus, amygdala, neocortex, and hippocampus (mentioned above), this knowledge will help you better understand how your own brain works and how to best communicate with others.

Author’s note: thanks in advance for any/all comments and feedback. If we don’t yet know each other, feel free to email me at will@wclittle.com and/or find me on the socials (@wclittle). If you know me and have things I should hear that are better said over video chat or in-person, I welcome that opportunity! Otherwise, for diving into general intellectual conversations, I actually enjoy email or small group chat. Call me old-school. :) // Also, if you haven’t yet, feel free to subscribe to my Satchel, which allows you to subscribe to my general newsletter and/or specific topics I write about (i.e. mainly startups, health science, blockchains/Web3, software development, and my podcast, Ventures). Finally, many thanks to my colleagues at Prota Ventures who provided great insight/conversation over Slack and gDocs to earlier versions of the above article. Thank you!