If You Can't Say Something Nice

I asked for your thoughts on a question a reader posed in the comment section of one of my posts last week. We’ll come back and visit the answers to that question in a future installment. (Maybe next Monday – but one never knows, does one?) I want to give everyone just a little extra time to take a look and see if there are any other thoughts.

However, today I want to speak specifically to one response that got posted. And I want to use that response to talk, in general terms, about one of the most infuriating things about the cyber-world; its affect on the tone of conversation. You see, “Dave’s” response seemed, to me, a bit harsh. In particular he started with the phrase “You’ve GOT to be kidding.” 

In what conversation that you have with anyone, in particular when they are turning to you for advice (or vicariously turning for advice through someone else) do you start with “You’ve got to be kidding”? But, welcome to the internet. What is it about the open conversation of the internet that allows the troll in each of us to try and raise its ugly head? And, to answer my own question, why is it that anonymity allows so many people to feel they no longer need to worry about using our last shreds of common decency?

I’m sure you’ve seen it, too. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, even in e-mails, there is the tendency to forget that, in spite of the electronic component, we are still trying to accomplish human-to-human interaction. 

But, before you start polishing your personal halo with pride as you glory in your self-righteousness, let us never forget how “but for the grace of God…” each of us are when it comes to these types of situations. And here’s how I know that to be true.

When you are walking down the hall, and you do that thing for which there is no name (you know the thing – the one  where you lean to the left just as the other person leans that way, then you lean to the right and they lean too. Then you both laugh [because it happens to all of us] and next thing you know you are doing more synchronized leaning) do you ever swear at that person? I’m guessing the answer is no. In fact, most people usually laugh and apologize and eventually figure out how to pass each other.

Now, imagine this happening as you drive your vehicle down the road. Well, on the road we would call it a near-fatal accident, and we won’t get into that ugliness right now. But how do you react when you get cut-off while driving, or some idiot is going too slowly in front of you, or any of the myriad other stupid driving habits that none of the rest of us exhibit happen? Odds are you don’t react with a light laugh and a merry apology. For me, depending on the mood, I know my reaction can be a tad epithet laced. Of course, I would never react that way in person. But the solitary environment of my car causes me to be a whole new (not improved) person.

And so it is with the internet. You don’t have to see the person, there is little chance of retribution, and you just blurt out the first nasty thing that dwells below the surface. And the next thing you know, your rampage is out there for a few million people to see. Of course, no one knows who you are because your user name is StudAuditor26 (because 25 other people already took the StudAuditor name) and you know it is safe to just do whatever you want.

But now, having tromped on “Dave”, let me also defend him. Because, there is just the chance that I have misunderstood the tone he was trying to convey. In case no one has noticed, it is really tough to ensure all nuances are properly transferred through the written word. And that means that we have to be careful what we write. Here’s an example torn from the pages of last week.

Two weeks ago I was out of town, so an auditor sent me an e-mail asking about the next step to be taken in an audit. I couldn’t remember if one of the managers involved had seen and approved, so I typed “Stupid question. Did xxxx approve the memo?” Last week, the auditor came into my office, shut the door, and said we needed to talk. (Never good.) He wanted to know what he had done wrong. You see, when I typed that line, I had intended to say that I had a stupid question; when the auditor read the line, he thought I was telling him he had asked a stupid question.

Writing is a difficult method of communication. It is strictly the words – no nuances of body language, tone, etc – just the words. Social media, the internet, and all e-communications have exacerbated the problem because now we communicate so much more exclusively in the written word.   And we often do it quickly without thinking too hard about what we are saying (not what we meant to say, what we actually said.)  

I’ve been picking on “Dave” because; well, because he started it. But I think it is a perfect example for the lesson to be drawn here. Be careful how and what you write. It is important to choose your words carefully to ensure the message you mean to send is being received. But it is probably more important to choose the appropriate message.

Posted on Mar 14, 2011 by Mike Jacka

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