Interpreting the Written Word

At work and on blogs, I read more and more e-mails and replies in which the tone and the message are sometimes highly questionable. This made me think about the impact written words can have.

Scissors, glass shards…and words

Don’t run when carrying scissors. Don’t pick up glass shards with your bare hands. Don’t cheat. Don’t yell your answer to the classroom. Don’t gossip… I guess only the last one slightly warned me as a child that words can hurt. My parents always told me that words could do more harm than being hit against your arm. I have to admit I found that hard to believe (I’ve never been hit nor verbally bullied) but I took it into consideration and I always thought carefully before speaking – especially when I was angry with someone.

In university, none of my teachers ever paid much attention to the destructiveness of words on paper. Of course, we discussed the tone used in articles in great detail, but the impact the professor’s comments could have, was never addressed.  A professor often gave his remarks orally before returning his written remarks to students, diminishing the blow noticeably. The written remarks though, were – to put it mildly –blunt. Since I had received them with some clear explanation and because I knew who’d given the critique the impact was not too bad (or so I believed).


Hello, Goodbye

My clients and I communicate mainly through the Internet. So I’m facing all kinds of messages that can be interpreted in several ways. (Not to mention the lack of punctuation, where some write`a la Joyce’s Ulysses streamofconsciounessstylewhichmakesithardtounderstandattimes.) As a result, I think more carefully about what I’ve written before pressing the send button. Take the following example:


Dear Sir/Madame,
I don’t know how to share a document with you. Could you explain this to me, please?
Kind regards,


see the FAQ on our website

Personally, I would be offended if I’d receive such a reply; it’s too informal, blunt and lacks all intentions of being just slightly helpful. Even if I had asked the obvious question that could be found in the FAQ, I would like to be told so in a polite way. Had the word ‘please’ been added at the beginning of the sentence it would have been more courteous already. How much work is it to address a person and sign the message?

Are you MENTAL!

Capitalizing adds extra emphasis on the word(s). In stories it’s a device to show someone is angry or yelling. But how would you interpret a message addressed to you in which

YOU are addressed in capitalized letters because the writer doesn’t agree with YOUR OPINION or ADVICE that YOU have given?

Of course, the author of the message might not mean it like that. He might be stressed out or caught in an emotional moment. But unlike a face-to-face interaction, in which the person can explain what he actually meant, a written message can’t explain itself. It’s a one-way communication and it’s up to the receiver to conclude what is meant by it.

Do you get what I mean?!

Besides capitalizing words messages can be strengthened by using extra punctuation marks??? Or my favourite: !!! (Honestly, this one makes me smile and I take a text less seriously even when the message in it is important or shocking.) But what would your first impression be if someone posted this comment on one of your blogs?

*Some* writers just do not get how to write a blog.

Obviously it depends on what the blog was about. But still I’d feel like I might belong to that group of *some* writers. To me asterisks single out a certain group that don’t need to be pointed out by name, because we all know who it is that is referred to. To a certain degree asterisks insinuate the same annoying connotation as quotation marks. Especially in replies to people’s personal opinion (which is what most blogs are, people’s opinions), asterisks give a very negative and strong impression.

The Impact of the Written Word

I like to write and I like it when people enjoy what I’ve written. As a writer I shouldn’t only think about what I want to say, but also how I write it down. I do this when I’m writing stories and when writing replies on other people’s comments and e-mails. It’s always possible that the meaning could be misinterpreted or twisted, despite the time spent thinking about it.

My solution is similar to giving feedback – keep it personal to show that it’s my opinion: “I notice”, “I think”, “it made me feel…” At university, this style of feedback was drilled into me during every course I took. I can disagree with someone’s point of view, that’s perfectly fine. But I can’t very well tell someone her opinion is downright wrong.

En Garde

Words can (unintentionally) have a life of their own and do more harm than intended. What I’ve noticed at work is that written messages are often taken for granted. I’ve had all kinds of training on oral communication but hardly any on written communication.

It’s said that the pen is mightier than the sword. If I’d take an interest in sword fighting it doesn’t mean I can just pick up a sword and start swinging it around (apparently this is not the advisable thing to do); it takes some extensive training before mastering swordsmanship. If, then, the pen is mightier than the sword, shouldn’t the people who wield the pen receive some decent training too? If poking people with swords is not advisable then I don’t think poking others with words is advisable either. Written communication is far more challenging than we often think.

I didn’t intend to go for the finger waving kind-of approach here. I just want to express the challenges in communicating with the written word. I’m interested in how other people experience typographical glyphs and other assets that are used in texts, or the interpretations thereof. How do you feel when the meaning isn’t clear?



8 thoughts on “Interpreting the Written Word

  1. It reminds me of a post I wrote a while ago, pehaps you saw it, about words we use in the English language to make the message more friendly, I taught this in a lesson and it is interesting to read the list of words considered “friendly” and to realise how important they are particularly for learners of English as a second language, this is something so subtle, but if you don’t learn it, written messages can come across as being very abrupt. Here is the link to my post ‘Is English a Friendly Language?

  2. Written words are harder to interpret than spoken words, but I’ve often had verbal disagreements over how something was said. Me interpreting it one way, the other person intending it another. I’ve gotten into using emoticons because my dry sense of humor doesn’t translate well in comments or emails. But sometimes I look back and the emoticons are overwhelming the text.

    Thanks for pointing out the importance of saying “I think” rather than issuing opinions as statement of fact. It always irks me when someone says, “This is horrible writing,” as if it is a proven theorem and not an opinion.

    1. Hi Kourtney,

      Yes, misunderstandings occur both in written and spoken communication. But I suppose a misunderstanding in spoken language can be rectified quicker than those in written language. Of course, this depends on how soon it becomes clear that speaker and listener are not on the same wave length.

      I think humor is the most difficult aspect to bring across in writing. Only people who know me really well, understand it in my writing. So I tend to use emoticons to make it obvious I didn’t mean it as something nasty or I just leave out the humor altogether 🙂 especially when I end up with too many smileys.

      Yes, I’d prefer if people who disagree with or dislike what somebody has written would keep it personal. It’s a given fact that not everybody will like what’s been written, but telling a person it’s horrible is just an opinion not a fact. I usually try to imagine that the writer didn’t mean it as harshly as I interpreted. Though it often takes some time before I can do this. 🙂


  3. It is interesting because I can reread that first comment numerous times and imagine it with so many different tones, but only because you have pointed it out, its the first impression we react to. I find the best response to a negative tone is overdo the positive response but in a genuine way (often after a period of time has lapsed in order to be truely genuine), then the reader sees the contrast without needing to be told.

    1. Hi Claire,

      I agree, it’s best to stay positive, giving a negetative response only fuels the negativity. And most of the time the author does realises the contrast.



  4. At univesity I had a lecturer who always ended every email with one of these 🙂 because he said they always sounded so cold that he was desperate to prove he wasn’t grumpy when he wrote it.

    I recently wrote an article about how the internet has damaged our way of communicating. I think the problem is we’ve mastered the technology behind words, but the problem is that when we speak to each other, our bodies and facial muscles provide subtext for what we say. The same sentence can mean sometimes hundreds of different things when factors such as tone of voice, facial expression and posture are taken into account. Without those things, emails do tend to be very cold and distant, and perhaps we should take more effort with them. I agree that in the example provided, it would have taken only a couple of seconds more to have addressed you by your name and said something that comes across a more politely.

    Personally, I do tend to jump to the worst possible meaning of a sentence when reading emails/comments etc, which is silly, because assuming a positive is actually a win-win situation.

    1. Hi,

      Smileys can help getting the tone right. Basically, they are replacing the facial expressions up to a certain extend. I’m not too keen to use them in my messages to my clients, seen from a professional point of view. Though my clients don’t mind using them in their emails to me 🙂

      I think that up to a certain amount, nonverbal communication strengthens the message and that’s something that can’t be added in written messages. Though not all emails struck me as cold and distant, when I know the person really well, I can often imagine him/her speaking while I read the message. I suppose I more or less imagine the nonverbal communication then.

      Normally, I go for the positive interpretation of a message, (which turns out not always to be a win-win situation 😉 But most of the time it is.) however, it does depend on my mood. When I’m tired or annoyed I tend to read ambiguous messages more negative than they might be.

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