Them’s Fightin’ Words, Pard.

On May 10, 2012, in Uncategorized, by rsguthrie

Language. It’s how we communicate. Period. Right?

To quote Judd Nelson’s character John Bender in The Breakfast Club: “Not even close, BUD.”

When email and electronic communication first came around, it wound up presenting some unique challenges for people. Up until emails, most communication happened via snail mail—letters. And there were really only two types of letters: familiar (friends and family) and professional (cover letters, etc.). Neither one presented much of a challenge because each had a purpose that was clear.

You wrote family and friends because you loved them, missed them, hated them, had forgotten their birthday, but the language inside the letter was basically the same. Professional letters had (and have) templates for crying out loud. They’re more clear than the day is long. (BOOM, cliche, right out of the blue.)

With emails now, however, we write short, conversational blurbs, even (and especially) in the professional environment. We are having conversations without the added benefit of human interaction. This is HUGE. Herein also lies the rub.

Years and years ago, when email was first showing up in businesses (yes, young ones, just a few weeks after we discovered fire), a co-worker (actually he was even technically a subordinate, though I abhor that kind of language in the workplace, being more of a team guy). Regardless, we had an email discussion near the end of the day about some ridiculously benign subject and he sent “the final word” and scooted for the day. I read his response and I literally wanted to hunt him down and kill him.

I stewed all night. I composed raging response after raging response, deleting them all because they were way too much. I didn’t know what to do. For once in my career I literally did not know how to proceed. I wanted vengeance on this guy and he was one of my own; a teammate. So I decided to speak with my own boss. I told her everything. Showed her the email in question. I did so not to rat but to warn her that when he got in I was going to go speak to him and that she might want to call the police ahead of time.

She thought about it for a moment and said she totally understood; that she probably would have taken his response the same way I had. (I should mention at this point that my boss at that time was a real cutting edge tech person—she’d been using email and this thing called “The World Wide Web” quite a bit more than me.) She said this, and I will never forget (or minimize) it:

“Some people don’t have very good interpersonal skills when it comes to writing emails. They are a whole different breed. I was once in the same situation as you. I went and talked to the individual and found out he hadn’t meant what I thought at all. We worked the whole thing out. You should go talk to (name withheld to protect the email challenged) and see what he really meant to say.

So I did. I laid it on the line with the guy; told him how I took what he said, what an insult it was, and how I planned to take him apart piece by piece and feed him to the first animal I found. (I didn’t threaten him, that was for effect—see how I felt the need to explain that to you? Consider that example number one.)

My coworker was aghast. I mean truly, utterly beside himself. This was a stoic man and he honestly had tears brimming in his eyes that I had taken his words that way. He slowly explained what he had written—every word of it. And guess what? It made sense. I could now see exactly from what perspective he had written it and precisely what was meant by every line and none of it was anything like I had originally thought.

Without the added benefit of human contact, emails (again, a strange hybrid of the letter and personal conversation) can be very difficult to interpret. We humans do not communicate through language alone. Far from it actually. Body language, eye movement, stance, movement, grunts, chuckles, winks, smiles, and at least a thousand more intricacies that cannot be seen or heard in an email can, in many cases, tell all.

I have no trouble writing my books. None. (Well, other than writer’s block and an intense fear that I am never going to find my audience.) But the writing is not an issue. I can (and should) describe all the emotion, facial expressions, and what’s going on in the character’s head. In fact, that’s why I personally love first person; that ability to BE inside the characters mind, share his or her innermost thoughts, beliefs, struggles, attitudes, etc.

But emails? Even this blog? Sometimes I am terrified to hit send or publish. I have my wife read every blog I write before I send it on its way into the unfeeling, uncaring ether. Each time I am notified of a response I don’t think “please agree with me” I think (with great trepidation) please understand what I meant, how I meant it, the humor, the tongue-in-cheek, the emphasis points and why…I don’t care if everyone disagrees with me. (Well, THAT would suck, now wouldn’t it?) But I’m guessing you know what I mean.

People don’t always get it, though. One of my biggest challenges is I am a sarcastic bastard. I mean I LOVE humor. So many times I will write something half-joking, full-on joking, being sarcastic—something that in face-to-face conversation would at least have a 100% better chance of being taken for what it was (whether appreciated or not being an entirely different subject), but a reader will completely think I was serious and comment on a tangent that scolds me for a thing I didn’t even mean and don’t even feel.

And here is the crux: as WRITERS…that’s on us. It’s not the readers job to interpret. We’re suppose to be able to show, not tell. It’s an awesome responsibility when you think about it. That’s why I have become an emoticon FREAK. I hate little squiggly, cutesy symbols (see, someone is going to think I really hate them, as if I am some kind of unsentimental jerk)…I don’t really hate them, but I hate that I feel like I have to end every thought with a wink or a smile or (my favorite, actually) what I call “the REALLY?” symbol:

 

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I swear I am the most open-minded guy you’ll ever meet. Almost to a fault. I fall somewhere between wishy-washy and undecided. But I do have opinions. Thoughts. Ideas. Many of which are off-base or completely infeasible. And I love to learn—I believe we learn MOST from our mistakes, because those burn brighter and hotter in our brains and leave deeper etching on the cavern walls within. Yet I get responses from people who you would think consider my the most opinionated, closed-minded, self-aggrandizing turd that ever dropped a word on a page.

I suppose at some point we just have to accept the fact that no matter what we will be misunderstood. That someone will always find the chaff in our piles of wheat; an inevitability of sorts. So I will finish with this suggestion:

Before you comment, before you make up your mind what someone else is saying, read it again. Wonder if it could have been meant another way. Look for other verbal clues (like winks or certain diffusing words) that might represent less combativeness that you first thought.

Had I not talked to my manager that day, I might be blogging to you now from my 6 x 8 cell.

 

 

11 Responses to Them’s Fightin’ Words, Pard.

  1. Rob, found your website RT’d by someone on twitter. Don’t know who now, but glad I did. I enjoyed reading this article with it’s wisdom about emails. Been there, too. Im subscribing. Great to meet you! Holly Michael

  2. Caleb Pirtle says:

    You’re right. The most difficult thing to do in an email is express humor or sarcasm. In a novel, you can set it up. In an email, you can’t. My comments have been misinterpreted so many times you might think I write in sanscrit.

  3. Oh how I am right there with you. I cannot count the number of times I’ve said something that I thought was SO CLEARLY IN JEST, only to have someone take me 100% seriously. I’m always left stammering, “Wait… no… what? How was that not clear?” lol

    P.S. I was going to strangle your password spam catcher dealie until I realized I could just cut and paste. :) <– obligatory smiley face

    • rsguthrie says:

      STRANGLE? Wha…oh, whew, appropriately-inserted smiley face saves the day yet again. God bless those tiny yellow bastards. OOPS, just kidding about the “bastards” comment (in case you design them or invented them or feel otherwise threatened by my reference). < ~BTW, that is truly heartfelt and not at all sarcastic. Well, maybe a little sarcastic. OK, you busted me, it’s TOTALLY dripping with sitcky, horrible, smelly sarcasm. Sue me. ;) <~ and yet Winkey again saves the day. I love this work…

  4. For a number of years when I was an outside corporate consultant in interpersonal communications (otherwise called Conflict Resolution), email kept our business going. People sitting in cubicles, feeling impotent and angry would fire off their feelings, hit send, and watch all hell break loose. They were wild times back in the beginnings of this then new form of communication.

    • rsguthrie says:

      As always, your words and the way you put them on the paper tell us as much as the thought behind them. Thank you, Christina—both for reading and commenting. As always, your friend Rob.

  5. Miriam Pia says:

    Wow, that was worth reading. Emotions are ‘such creatures’. It was nice to see a “grown man benefits from having a woman boss” story as part of the bigger picture. Mainly I was glad – relieved, at the almost miraculous transformation through the discovery of ‘what was actually meant’ rather ‘what had been said – or in this case, written.’

    Not that it will make you feel any better, but I may have undergone a second divorce because I misspoke. Really. Sad but true. Even JC refers to the power of language to heal or to harm. It also applies to making a sale or making…a not sale.

    • rsguthrie says:

      Thanks for the great comment, Miriam. And excellent point about JC. Funny how these principles almost always find their way back to such an origin. Just sayin’… :D

  6. Jon says:

    Heck happened to me once. I hit send on an email 2 days later I found out that email had been passed on to 8 other people.

    Words can be our greatest asset or our worse enemy.

    I have a rule now that if it’s about anyone, I phone or go speak to them face to face. Too much is open to interpretation.

    Just as a side note: Goes to show if we accept that things can be misunderstood in an email, Imagine how much has been misunderstood and misinterpreted in religious texts.

    Somehow though that gets a golden pass lol

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