The Hanlon Principle For Communicating Through Social Networks

Hanlon's principle for communicating via social networks

Social networks have revolutionized the way we communicate. Until a few years ago, it was unthinkable to talk to our friends in real time even when we weren’t in their company. Now we just need an internet connection and use one of the many social networks on the net.

What hasn’t changed is the way we understand each other, the way we use language as a central vehicle for establishing relationships. Clearly, when communication does not happen face to face, misunderstandings arise which in most cases say more about who interprets the message than about who sends it.

An elephant in the room

The phone rings. It is a notification from a social network. On the screen you read: “Hi! How is it going?”.

You’ve had a bad day or the writer is your boss and you think he needs another favor. Maybe, instead, you are in a good mood or writing to you is your best friend with whom you had a great desire to talk. But all this the sender of the message does not know. He cannot know because it is not face-to-face communication and does not have access to other channels of language as important as words:

  • Proxemics : the place and space where communication takes place. It is not the same as greeting someone on the street who is in a hurry and apologizes for not being able to stop but doing it through a social network. When we are connected to social networks, maybe we work on the PC and view the message without replying. We read them to see if it is something important, but we have no reason to respond right away. And it is at this point that the sender of that message can draw a thousand conclusions, even the most dramatic ones: “he doesn’t love me because he doesn’t answer me”, “he dislikes me”, “what have I done to him?”.
  • Vocal or extra-linguistic : refers to the vocalization of language itself, to the tone and form, but not to the content. As much as we use them, neither irony nor sarcasm or jokes are perceived correctly through social networks. Tone is a very important part of understanding the meaning of a message and the world of technology can only predict voice messages.
  • Verbal or linguistic : this refers to the language we use to write a message. Again, the distance to the recipient comes into play. It is not the same to find ourselves face to face with the guy we like and greets us, making us nervous and respond as if we have speech problems, stuttering, aphasia or anything else than sitting comfortably at home, surrounded by friends and thinking about what to answer ” so as not to seem anxious or stupid ”or“ because it is an original message ”.

Most of us are aware of all this. We know that everything matters in a communication, from tone to distance, but when it comes to social networks we forget it. Become the elephant in the room, we all see it, but everyone explains his presence in his own way, that is, he understands the message according to what suits him.

The Hanlon principle

Robert J. Hanlon in 1980 proposed a solution to this problem of communication in social networks, even before their existence. In his famous book on Murphy’s Law, Hanlon states what is known as the Hanlon principle or Hanlon’s razor: ” never attribute to bad faith what can reasonably be explained by stupidity “.


If we are based on the Hanlon principle, we will have to lower the degree of intentionality that we attribute to many of the communications on social networks. Many of the errors of form that we detect and interpret against us correspond more to inattention than to a negative intention. What is certain is that the world usually forgets about us, not about those who conspire against us.

As we told you earlier, therefore, written communication lacks many elements and information that, instead, are present in a face-to-face communication. On the other hand, that they are not present does not mean having to imagine them, but having to increase our prudence regarding the interpretation of what we read. This way, we will avoid anger and misunderstandings that don’t really make any sense.

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