written communication sz

I hate you.

I hate you! 😉

You’re going to Hawaii? I’m so jealous, I hate you! 😉

What happens when the true intent of our words gets lost in translation?  One coWORKer came to Coffee Social this week with a disturbing Facebook story. It was the classic “I was joking, but you didn’t know I was joking, so now we’re not friends anymore” story, which led to an important discussion.

In the last few decades we have all experienced tremendously fast, widespread adoption of entirely new forms of communicating.  There are only about two decades’ worth of email experience on which to base our social norms and best practices.  Texting and social media? Closer to a single decade.  To remind us just how recently our new world of communication was created, Facebook was started eleven years ago and the iPhone was introduced only eight years ago. Historically speaking, that’s not very long.  In fact, it’s the blink of an eye.

At first glance, these may simply appear to be new versions of the old-fashioned handwritten letter.  What’s there to learn?  We’ve been communicating with the written word for thousands of years!  But read a string of text messages or Facebook comments and you’ll see little resemblance to the traditional written format.  They’re more like passing notes in the back of the classroom.  The style is much closer to spoken language, a casual banter.  Except that spoken language comes with a whole host of other cues:  tone, body language, facial expressions, and context, for example. What happens when you keep the words, but eliminate the rest?  A big opportunity for misunderstandings!

Thus the need for clarification, exclamation points, and emoticons, transforming “I hate you” back into its originally intended meaning.  Is your witty banter diminished by all this fuss?  Perhaps.  But if you don’t have a pre-established successful relationship of casual written conversation, you may want to err on the side of explicitness, lest you lose a friend.

Published April 29th, 2015

Written and photographed by Natasha Juliana. Edited by Linda Jay. Curious about Coffee Social?  Join us Tuesdays at 10 AM.

Interested in this topic?  There’s a great book called Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers that chronicles the development of communication methods throughout history.   I highly recommend it!

And I recently listened to an interesting Harvard Business Review IdeaCast called “Understand How People See You,” which highlights how, even in person, interactions can so easily be misconstrued.