I was originally going to call this piece, How to Avoid Electronically Pissing People Off, but figured since I was striving for professionalism I’d better rethink that title. So, you get Voiceless Miscommunication instead. Confused yet? Don’t worry…I’ll fix it.
I’ve said it before and I’m fairly certain I’ll say it again: we are virtually (no pun intended) overrun with technology; from cell phones to wireless networks, massively multiplayer online games to blue tooth and everything in between. These days it’s hard to tell when an actual person ends and their technology begins because one’s tech is very much another appendage which, if severed, could cause physical pain.
We love our cell phones, our texting, our emojis and emoticons, instant video, on-demand anything, now, right now, hurry up please. Can you say instant gratification? The problem this has created is we are, less and less, communicating with one another as we are with an artificial-like intelligence. Hey, Siri? Hi, Galaxy! And, wonder of wonders, our devices talk back to us. Sometimes with flippant comments cleverly programmed by those invisible actual-humans who program such wonders, and other times with seamless internet searches which delve for answers even before you’re done asking the questions.
Do you know that feeling you get – those of you who have experienced such things – when Siri comes back with a sarcastic non-answer? Or when Galaxy responds, “That’s a tough question. Allow me to search the internet for an answer to ‘What is two times two?’.” Meanwhile, you’re thinking: “Really?” And each time you attempt to clarify your question to the faceless, emotionless, quasi-A.I. which lives inside your device, the response you get only serves to confuse you further. As if two times two could ever equal purple, because aliens don’t wear hats. Say what?
But, in true Tangent style, I digress.
I was headed toward discussing email – another faceless, emotionless, quasi-A.I…. Ok, not really, but definitely one of the most widely-used forms of communication technology we have. But, as useful a tool as email is, email really doesn’t have a voice unless you give it one. We can take thoughts from our clever brains and type them out neatly into whatever email program you use (Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo! – you get the picture) and suddenly thoughts become visible words. And, though you know how those words are supposed to sound, once they get ‘on paper’ they suddenly lose their tone. The words have no voice. Further, not everyone is as creative as you are, so your words may be misconstrued on the other end because the recipient was unable to hear with your intended voice. You are now voicelessly communicating with another human being.
Let’s face it, though. At the root of this, we’re all human beings; and therein lies the problem. Have you ever tried reading lips? Have you ever witnessed a conversation taking place in American Sign Language and wondered what was being said? Have you ever heard another language being spoken and felt left out? Now, I know there are a lot of you out there who can read lips, or understand ASL, or have an ear for foreign languages, so you may have to stretch a bit here, but stay with me. I’m trying to convey the level of confusion, exclusion, or even frustration you may feel at not being able to understand what is being said. Your logical brain tells you that, because two people are conversing they must be using a language they both understand and therefore, the conversation is meaningful to them. Your feeling brain is simply confused, lonely and left out. Though, really, you do not need to be involved in every conversation you hear (sorry, my inner mother just came out).
Wow…I went off track again. Sheesh! I must need some more caffeine.
How, you may be asking, do I give my email communications a voice? Well, to be perfectly honest, it’s hard. And some people are just unable to do it, no matter how hard they try. It could be a matter of, “I’ve gotten my point across,” or, “I’ve said what I meant to say,” or, “If they take what I’ve said in a way that I didn’t intend, well…that’s not my fault, is it?”
Actually, it is.
Relationships have been established, strengthened, fought for, and finally solidified or lost entirely using email. Through email, it is just as possible to capture someone’s attention in a positive way as it is to really tick someone off. Just a possible to get your message across in a friendly manner as it is to simply state facts.
Let’s test this, shall we?
Just thought you’d want to know those catalogs you ordered have arrived. They’re on the shipping dock, which is currently overloaded with deliveries. WOW! I’m gonna be busy the next few days! Let me know if you need help moving them to storage.
Your catalogs are on the shipping dock. Dock’s full, so get them to storage soon.
Which email would you prefer to receive? While both emails contain the same information – catalogs have arrived, the shipping dock is crowded, the catalogs need to be moved to storage – one email is friendly and implies the sender’s willingness to assist the recipient with moving the catalogs in order to clear off the dock while the other email is basically, “Your stuff’s here. Come get it.”
Let’s try this again.
I just got a call from a customer who said you were unfriendly to them. I would really like to hear your side of the story. Do you have time to come see me this afternoon so we can work this out? I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding.
I just got a call from a customer who said you were rude to them. You have got to tone it down. We need to talk about this a.s.a.p. I need you in my office before noon. This is not the kind of behavior I tolerate.
Again, which email would you rather receive? While both emails contain the same basic information, one is open-minded and non-accusatory; taking the facts as they are known and relaying them in a way that gets attention, but also lets the recipient know that no judgement is going to be handed down until both sides have fully vetted the information related to the situation. The other email is accusatory, judgmental and automatically assumes the recipient is at fault. Yes, both senders want to talk to the recipient, but it is apparent one prefers to hear both sides of the story before making any decisions while the other has already made a judgement call on the situation.
You can make or break any relationship via email. The trick is to find the right words, in the right context, which will convey the right meaning to the recipient. This is extremely difficult at times. Also, there are some folks who simply cannot do this, no matter how much they might want to or how hard they try. Bottom line is you need to write, and read, email with your human voice instead of your electronic one.
Here’s another way to look at it: If you are automatically inclined to react in a particular way to an email from a particular person, there’s nothing that particular person can do to beautify their words so you won’t take offense. I mean, let’s face it: there are some folks who just rub you the wrong way, no matter what they do, right? Just as there are folks who you can’t help but like, even if you may not really want to.
So, this voiceless communication thing is a two-sided coin. On one side, a sender really needs to pay attention to the words they are using, taking into consideration how those words will be received on the other end and if those words will convey their meaning in an appropriate, non-offensive way. On the other side, the recipient really needs to pay attention to the words as they are written and make an attempt to hear them with the human intonations with which they were intended.
Bottom line is: words are words, meaning is meaning, but undertone, intent, and predetermined feelings such as like and dislike are also key factors to consider when composing electronic communications. It’s a skill. And like any skill, it takes practice. So the next time you sit down to compose an email – however brief – consider the above-mentioned factors of words, meaning, undertone, intent, and feeling as you type. You may just find that your email has a positive impact on more levels than you ever thought possible.