Don’t let me be misunderstood
Posted by lpearle on 2 May 2013
I’ve been reading a book set in the future – it’s not quite a dystopia, but there was a Big Quake in LA and the government (I think) has pushed the idea of Digital School. Our Heroine is anti-DS; actually, she’s anti-digital in general. There’s a great scene where she and some friends are going in to the Hot! Hip! Club and it’s a digital club. Patrons pay a cover charge to go in, sit in a chair and put on digital glasses and a Mind Reader and, well, “interact” with each other. She misses face-to-face interactions, conversations where you can really see and hear someone without a screen or an avatar mediating the experience.
That’s been resonating with me as I “chat” with friends online, either on Twitter, GChat or e-mail. Words we mean in a humorous vein need to be modified with a LOL or “that was my sarcasm font” or some such notifier. Simple statements of facts become “mean-spirited” or “harsh” rather than information. Intentions can be lost – or misunderstood. Worse is when we “reply all” when we really mean to say something privately! I’m sure I’m not alone in getting that sinking feeling when I see certain names in my inbox (or on a DM… my caller ID…) as I try to figure out what I did to deserve this nastygram. I’m equally sure that others see my name/number and have the same feeling.
What about when it’s not me, but the institution for whom I work/represent? Are the e-mailed overdue notices harsh to patron’s eyes, when all I want to do is convey information? When I started one job, I saw notices posted all over the library that were filled with “DO NOT’ phrases and other like comments (including one that informed people that ripping articles out of magazines was a punishable offense and tantamount to theft!) – one of my first acts was to tear them all down. It was strongly recommended that no rules be posted, no matter how kindly phrased.
I also wonder about management style. I’ve worked for great bosses, who know how to deliver bad news, criticism and corrections so well that you never felt like a child being scolded. I’ve worked for others who in person were wonderful, but their official e-mails and letters verged on the nastygram side of writing. And I’ve worked for some who never give praise, never smile, never even thank people for the job being done, either virtually or in person, let alone acknowledge their “inferiors”. Guess which I try to emulate.
Still, recently I’ve wondered about my virtual style. If a conversation is face-to-face, it’s easier to correct misunderstandings. But virtually? Even if you take time to respond, being thoughtful and writing with care, it’s all too easy to make things worse.