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Posted on 11. August 2011

That is Not What I Meant

By Tammie Allegro

With so many new ways to communicate these days, one would hope that we would all be great at expressing ourselves. We communicate via Facebook, blogs, email and texting - just to name a few. Rarely, it seems, does anyone ever pick up a telephone to make a call. It is far too easy to send a quick text or email to get our message across. The problem is that this type of communication is often not interpreted correctly. A post on Facebook or an email to a friend lacks the genuine connection that a one-on-one conversation garners. Yet, currently, there are more than 750 million Facebook users. That’s a lot of conversation and connection happening through the written word!

There are websites dedicated to blunders sent via text and email.  Situations in which spell checker changes the word to something totally wrong can cause all sorts of confusion for the reader. But, what if the words are jumbled not by technology, but by the thoughts in our heads? It has been said that when we read something for the first time, we are reading it with a personal perspective. Our life experiences will determine how we interpret what we are reading. It is no wonder, then, why so many people misinterpret texts and emails. When we speak to someone, we watch for body language, as well as listen to the tone in which it was said. We can tell a lot from a person’s tone. There is no tone in text or email - just written words left open for interpretation.

Just this past weekend, I was making plans with my father. We were going to pick him up on our way to a birthday party, and I sent him a text asking if he needed to run to the store. We figured we could all go to the store together, which would give us even more time to hang out. My question was: “Should we go out here or out there to the store?” His reply was: “Go ahead and do it out here.” Somehow, I read “Go ahead and do it out there.” So we went on our merry way and shopped near our home before heading to my dad’s. When we arrived at his house, we had about 30 minutes before we had to leave for the party. We piled into the car and quickly drove to the party. Then my dad asked, “Why aren’t we going to the store? I don’t have their gift yet.”  At this moment, I read my text for the second time and I realized my error. In my haste to run out the door, I didn’t read the text carefully. I felt like I had gotten the brush-off, and subsequently gave my dad the same feeling.

This is a small innocent example, but there are many stories that start with an email exchange or a Facebook post that turn into full-blown fights filled with hurt feelings and damaged relationships.  Recently, Psychologist Justin Kruger and his colleague, Nicholas Epley, PhD, of the University of Chicago, published research that helps explain why these electronic misunderstandings occur so frequently. In their study, which was published in the December 2010 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (vol. 89, no. 5, pages 925-936), they found that people tend to overestimate both their ability to convey their intended tone - be it sarcastic, serious or funny - when they send an email, as well as their ability to correctly interpret the tone of messages others send to them.

A second factor that creates electronic miscommunication is when the email isn’t written clearly enough to convey the intention. When we sit down to write an email, we make certain assumptions about the other person. We assume that they know why we are emailing, as well as the tone with which we are writing the email. But this often isn’t the case. Many times, the person reading the written communication has nothing to go on other than the text.  The fact is that interpreting written communication can often be like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle without the edges. We will probably put the puzzle together eventually, but the picture won’t look right and we will probably be frustrated.

This isn’t to say that written communication is all bad. We use it for so many different reasons. The connections we make through media like Facebook can be priceless. That encouraging email or text when we are having a bad day can be just what the doctor ordered. The world depends on written communication and it probably always will. What we need to remember is to slow down and reread what is being said, whether we are the sender or the receiver. And, when all else fails, pick up the phone.

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