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).
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:
I don’t know how to share a document with you. Could you explain this to me, please?
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.
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?