Conversation sanctity

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently wished the Dalai Lama recently on the latter’s 86th birthday, on July 6, 2021.

This is of course entirely normal. Modi wishes a lot of international and Indian dignitaries on their birthdays and I’m sure he and his team keep a meticulously updated calendar to ensure that this is done as part of a process within the Government’s communications.

What was the primary mode of communication for the wish? It was a phone call.

But, besides wishing the Dalai Lama on his birthday via a phone call, Modi also tweeted that he wished the Dalai Lama. Would we/the world have known about Modi wishing the Dalai Lama on his birthday (via phone) had Modi not tweeted about it? Possibly, if the Government’s media relations team had shared a press release to that effect, but with or without a press release, we know from Modi’s tweet that he did wish the Dalai Lama.

The question is: did Modi inform Dalai Lama that he was going to share with the world that he spoke to him and wished him on his 86th birthday?

Related question: how does that even matter?

The answer to the first question: it’s entirely possible that Modi would have informed the Dalai Lama about his intent to tweet it out. I have no reason to believe otherwise.

The second question? Yes, it does matter. The larger point is that the phone call to wish him was a one-to-one communication, between two people. But when Modi announced to the world about his phone call via a tweet, he proclaimed to the world what had previously remained between two people.

A phone call is a one-to-one communication. Ditto for email, or postal mail, or a face-to-face conversation offline. Or even a chat via WhatsApp or text message.

Social media is a many-to-many communication channel. There is no one speaker and one listener. By nature of being public and having followers and following, social media platforms have multiple speakers and listeners for anything being said on them. From the speaker’s perspective, they may presume that they are the only speaker and their followers are all listeners, but that’s not entirely accurate.

Any listener could take the first speaker’s message, build on it and add new dimensions to it. The listeners of the first speaker and the listeners of the 2nd speaker would have a new version of the first message now to process. And so it builds. So, a communication channel that involves many speakers and many listeners at the same time, or many-to-many.

But, if you direct-message 5 people on Twitter, which is otherwise a many-to-many social media platform, then that action becomes one-to-many. An email sent to more than one person (in ‘to’ and/or ‘cc’) could also be one-to-many.

How about a message in a WhatsApp Group? Many-to-many.

Back to Modi’s tweet. There is a special significance to his tweet and phone call. This is the first time Modi, as the Prime Minister of India, is wishing the Dalai Lama on his birthday! The last time he wished him on his birthday was on July 6, 2013, when Modi was Gujarat’s Chief Minister!

This is also only the 3rd time that Modi is mentioning the Dalai Lama in his otherwise prolific Twitter handle since becoming the Prime Minister in 2014.

Imagine – 6+ years of being a Prime Minister and his first-ever birthday wish to the Dalai Lama?

(Of course, it is entirely possible that Modi may be wishing the Dalai Lama over a phone call every year and chose not to make the phone call public in the years 2014-2020, but did so, in 2021.)

There is a deeper meaning to this public proclamation of the birthday wish. And that could be due to China that does not recognize the Dalai Lama’s authority when it comes to Tibet. It is possible that Modi/India wanted a smoother relationship with China all these years and had even invited the Chinese premier to a meeting in Mahabalipuram near Chennai that made a lot of news. But now that China is painfully intruding into India’s borders, this could be Modi’s way of sending a message to China that the days of being friendly and considerate are over.

So, a simple birthday wish tweet as a loaded political message to the world and to China!

Who was the intended recipient of Modi’s tweet? The whole world.
Who was the incidental recipient of Modi’s tweet for whom the contents of the message would hold special significance? China.

Why is this relevant to us as individuals? Because, at the very basic, this is about the sanctity of conversation in communications. Ideally, Modi should have maintained the sanctity of the direct communication between himself and the Dalai Lama. But, he chose to make it public too, and the reason is something we can guess – there is a larger need for making it public this year.

Consider a simple example: a woman learns that she is pregnant after a pregnancy test. She,
a. posts about it on Instagram
b. calls/messages her husband and tells him

What would be the appropriate course of action first?

Obviously the second. Imagine the husband’s shock finding out from the wife’s Instagram message that she is pregnant! You could argue that the news of pregnancy is very different from a simple birthday wish and you would be right.

So, there are three considerations to remember when it comes to the sanctity of a conversation –

  1. the content of the message
  2. the relationship between the participants, and
  3. the intended recipient

I usually wish friends and family on their birthday using a direct communication channel wherever possible – a WhatsApp message, email, or text message. I seldom wish through a public channel – a Facebook post tagging them or a tweet with an at-mention. Even when Facebook shows me an auto-generated birthday wish where people can easily just reply with their wish, I make it a point to message them via Facebook messenger or find another direct channel. I do this because I don’t want to be the person who shouts a birthday wish them from the street while everyone around me (and them) can listen in. That’s the offline equivalent of a reply on Facebook’s auto-generated birthday wish post.

My assumption for any birthday wish to people I know personally is that I want the intended recipient to be that person alone, and not that person + the whole world.

Ditto with the ‘congrats’ messages on LinkedIn when the platform auto-generates a post when someone has a new job or is promoted. My first choice is to search for a direct communication method.

Understanding the differences between many-to-many, one-to-many, and one-to-one communication, and picking the appropriate one has many more dimensions.

For instance, consider how we complain about brands using social media. Say, if you have a problem with Airtel, what is your preferred communication channel?

I usually register a complaint on the app, or send them a direct message on Twitter. If I do not hear back from them in a reasonable amount of time (this ‘time’ varies from person to person), my last resort is a tweet that the whole world could potentially see – a many-to-many broadcast. I want to give the brand a chance to respond to me where I’m not shaming them in public as a default option over service deficiencies. The point is, who is the intended recipient of the communication – the service provider alone, or the service provider + the whole world?

Of course, your default choice of communication could also be dictated by how annoyed you are with a service provider’s deficient service.

Such broadcasts may also manifest in other ways.

Consider this print ad.

Who is the intended recipient? Prime Minister Modi.
What is the channel of communication? A print ad in the front page of The Times of India and The Economic Times. That means the intended recipients are,
a. Modi
b. Most of India

This is akin to the sender of the communication standing outside Modi’s residence and shouting the message. The intention is that somehow, someone may get the message to the intended recipient because they don’t have any direct contact with him whatsoever.

So, remember – the next time you use social media to inform a specific person about something, think again and consider the most appropriate channel or platform for the communication.

On a final note, imagine why these are ‘jokes’ (they are toons from The New Yorker):

What makes them funny? We realize that a person is supposed to directly communicate with their therapist or mother, but they, to mine a joke, are offering that the therapist or the mother read about what they are asking on a channel of communication that is open to the world/others too! That the conversation sanctity is breached is the joke, here!



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