Illustration by René Lapoutre

Miscommunication in times of corona

When and how to say sorry

Illustration by René Lapoutre
With students locked up in their rooms and communication mostly taking place online, conflicts arise easily. But how should you solve them? ‘You don’t always have to apologise.’
31 May om 19:35 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 24 August 2021
om 15:26 uur.
May 31 at 19:35 PM.
Last modified on August 24, 2021
at 15:26 PM.

Door Emily Zaal

31 May om 19:35 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 24 August 2021
om 15:26 uur.

By Emily Zaal

May 31 at 19:35 PM.
Last modified on August 24, 2021
at 15:26 PM.

Emily Zaal

Volledig bio
Student editor
Full bio

The online communication drove Martin Wang crazy this year. The economics and business economics student remembers one case in particular, where he kept having small miscommunications about assignments. ‘They weren’t discussed properly’, he says. ‘So in the end they caused really big annoyances.’

The answer? Finally sit down together, talk, and make peace. Online, though. ‘In this specific case, I preferred communicating online because I felt I could avoid aggression or awkwardness’, he says. 

The last eighteen months have proved to be polarising, to say the least. Corona hardliners fight those who deny the virus even exists. Some are angry that they haven’t been vaccinated, while others vehemently refuse the medication offered to them. Students fight over house parties, or whether cheating during exams is okay. And then there are many small misunderstandings and annoyances that keep happening. Simply because we talk online.  

Not in real life

‘I can come across way blunter than I would like on WhatsApp’, says Nine van den Wijngaard. The master student of constitutional and administrative law experienced quite a few struggles with group mates during this academic year. ‘Doing group work during corona means having to deal with people that you don’t know very well, or haven’t even seen in real life’, she shares. ‘This makes it harder to communicate and get your point across in a clear way.’ 

It’s difficult to convey your actual message through typing

Master student talent development and creativity Elisa Shuffer agrees that communicating online is hard. ‘I am very social and try to be close to people, but having this distance creates obstacles in communication’, she says. Elisa believes that disagreements with classmates online are a major cause of misunderstandings nowadays. ‘These days it’s harder to get together, meaning you might have to solve the issue online’, she shares, ‘but I feel like it’s difficult to convey your actual message through typing.’ 

Nine also often gets annoyed by simply being too close to her boyfriend with whom she’s sharing a studio. ‘It is very difficult when we both have to make video calls or attend lectures online because we have to talk in the same room.’ Eventually Nine and her boyfriend sat down to try and figure out how to resolve the issue, which resulted in a compromise. ‘In that case our communication is very good, even if we have annoyances from time to time.’ 

Abnormal situation

‘Communication has proven to be difficult even in normal situations and conditions’, social psychologist Kyryiaki Fousiani says. She specialises in negotiation and conflict management. ‘Now that we are in the middle of an abnormal situation, people react more negatively.’ 

She sees it all around her: students are more dispirited, aggressive and self-centred than before. ‘Communication and good conflict management strategies are tied to people’s well-being’, Fousiani says. ‘People who are happier can focus on other people’s perspectives more and can engage in more beneficial for relationship strategies.’

However, getting into a conflict is often easier than getting out of it. People aren’t very good at problem solving, she says. ‘Depending on people’s personalities, they adopt different communication and conflict styles.’ Some may compromise, others avoid, force, or accommodate. But the funny thing is: ‘Most of the time people do not engage in problem solving strategies. They just resort to the other conflict styles’, she says.


So, what should you do, when you get into a row with your fellow students over something small, like an inappropriate emoji? 

Resolving an argument over text is difficult when you can no longer see each other

Face the conflict head on and apologise, thinks Nine. ‘It’s never easy or fun to have to admit you’re wrong. But once you clear the air, you’ll feel relieved.’ Being able to say sorry is a strong quality, she believes. 

An apology usually works best when you’re face to face. Medical student Bianca Masetto stresses the importance of being able to see the other person’s reaction when you are making up with them. ‘If you have an argument over text and you can no longer see each other, it would be difficult to fully resolve.’

When you can’t apologise to someone in person, you might resort to an apology over WhatsApp. ‘If it’s a nice message and the conflict isn’t too serious, then I think that’s absolutely fine’, Bianca continues. ‘Especially if the conflict starts online you might have to solve it in that way.’

Not always

However, apologising is not always the way to go, Fousiani warns. She often sees people saying sorry without actually meaning it. ‘In those cases, apologising is worse than not apologising at all’, she says, ‘Because you feel that the other person hasn’t even heard your concerns.’

When first-year medical student Pien Schoorlemmer notices someone in her surroundings seems cranky, she tries everything she can to not make it worse. ‘I am someone who says sorry very easily, which I don’t always like. Even when I don’t really mean it, I still find myself apologising’, she says.

‘This one time I was dating this guy and I wanted to end it’, adds Elisa. ‘I was going to start off by saying sorry’, she shares, ‘but my friends talked me out of wording it in that way. I didn’t even have anything to be sorry about and they were right.’ The consequences of saying sorry in the case of Pien and Elisa means giving up their own interests in order to please others. 

When you want to resolve a conflict, you need to take the context into consideration, says Fousiani. ‘It is important to first figure out what our own interests are, or what we personally want out of the conflict. Only then can you go on and find a compromise with the other person.’


Accommodation can be a very useful strategy if what matters to you most is maintaining the relationship, she says. This strategy has to do with people’s positions and interests. Most individuals focus more on their positions rather than their interests. ‘A lot of people want one thing and never want to move away from their position’, says Fousiani. ‘However, focusing on interests instead of positions leads to understanding why something is important for someone.’ 

Problem solving is the strategy that leads to a win-win situation

Let’s say you are running short on time with a group assignment that needs to be handed in: ‘then compromise or even forcing can also be beneficial strategies to use’, says Fousiani, ‘but in general, problem solving is the strategy that leads to a win-win situation.’ 

The common denominator of Fousiani’s tips and tricks on communicating during the pandemic have to do with training empathy and looking at all perspectives of the situation. ‘Try to fight the problem and not the person’, she adds. 

Another tip that has been proven effective is trying to think out of the box. ‘Be more creative and try to find many possible solutions’, Fousiani says. ‘We should learn how to solve a conflict together instead of putting others in the corner. We should fight against the differences between us’, she says.