When I told my nephew that Jill and I were looking into leasing an Acura, he commented:
“That’s a good car. It’s a Honda.”
When I told the Audi dealer we were also looking at Acuras, he commented:
“That’s a good car. It’s a Honda.”
It might not be clear from reading these identical quotes that the two comments meant very different things. From my nephew, it was an affirmation. From the car dealer, it was a putdown.
On the screen or on a sheet of paper, you could read those quotes a hundred times and never see the difference. Unless you were physically present, listening to the tone of voice and watching the face of the speaker, it would not be obvious that these statements were different at all.
Herein lies the challenge of communication in a digital age. We see text, a thought registers, and we never wonder if that thought was framed accurately. We hear what we hear, we understand it the way we understand it, and we move on. It simply doesn't occur to us that we should/could/might interpret it differently. Even without translation, much gets lost.
I know this has never happened to anyone else in the world, but I have tried to make a joke once or twice in an email or text, only to have my humor misunderstood, misconstrued, misinterpreted, and misapprehended. And they missed the joke, as well. Suddenly, we’re into a string of emails about how I was trying to be clever and every explanation makes it worse until I have to pick up the phone and actually speak with the person who is now furious with me.
Of course, that’s exactly what I should have done in the first place. If I had simply called, the other person would have understood my tone or inflection or that place our voices go when we transform a statement into a question. It turns out that you can tell a person, “I know this is really too difficult for you to understand,” in a way that makes it clear you don’t think they are stupid. But when you write it, it’s absolutely clear to them that, yes, you do think they’re stupid.
No matter how many emojis we add to an email—and I never understand any of them except the smiley face and the poop—the written word is incomplete. Face to face, we have tone, body language, pauses, volume, eye contact and other organically integrated cues for what we mean, how adamant we are, what we want, and whether we are finished with the conversation.
On the screen, all we have are letters and punctuation. And those inscrutable emojis.
It’s a safe bet that every one of us has offended somebody, possibly at some cost to ourselves or an important relationship, through a misinterpreted email or text. We might not be aware of who or when or how, but that’s really the point. We dash off 100 notes a day of one sort or another, almost invariably without re-reading them before we hit send…and voila. Strained and pained relationships ensue.
We see the damage from all of this when there’s some investigation or leak and we get to read someone else’s emails. “I will kill you,” or “I’ll do whatever it takes,” or “Of course, I’m guilty as charged,” shows up in text format and we know all we need to know about the writer.
By the time the author gets out the standard, “that-doesn’t-mean-what-it-looks-like-it-means,” disclaimer, pretty much everyone in the world has concluded that it absolutely means what it looks like and all that’s left is the sentencing.
Most of us can assume our emails won’t become social media fodder, either because we aren’t violating any rules or because we aren’t very important. You can never be sure, though, so it’s generally a good idea to adopt some protective rules for electronic communication.
First, never put anything negative, demeaning, incriminating or snarky into an email or text. This is impossible to guarantee in real life, but we can absolutely minimize the stuff that will be very embarrassing in hindsight. Even when discussing politics or a performance review or a disastrous date, the right wording can limit the need for future denials.
Second, if a conversation is going back and forth without a resolution, pick up the phone and call. Continuing an email string that isn’t coming to a conclusion reminds me of people who go to a foreign country and yell loudly and slowly in English to people who DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH. If no resolution is reached via email, the problem might be email itself.
I know this is an unexpected argument from a guy who earned his living putting words on paper, but facts are facts. The written word is a powerful tool, but it's not a complete workshop. As with any tool, it's important to know how it can be used and when it's a third-rate substitute for something else.
Remember that old saying that the medium IS the message? Finally, I think I am getting the idea.