Oh, how easy it is: electronic miscommunication

Monday, March 13, 2017 9:00 am

Eddie A. Jones
County Consultant

Communication: “The successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings.”

On a day during the recent legislative session, I was jolted by an unsuccessful attempt to properly communicate via text message to a legislator.

My text was returned with a terse, even snippy reply. You know the old saying, “tit for tat?” So I fired off another text, probably saying something not very professional. Between what is said and not meant and what is meant and not said, much is lost.

I have made much of my living in the communications field — 10 years prior to getting into public service and another 20 after getting into county government. After a long career of almost 37 years in public service, my job requires effective communication. Yet, I apparently did not convey my message effectively in that text to a senator. I considered the wording of my text and really could not think of a better way that I could have phrased my message.

Legislators and I are sometimes on opposite sides of an issue, but I always do my very best not to hold any ill will toward someone who has a different opinion or value from mine. However, this legislator appeared to be very offended that I would be on the other side of this particular issue. It was then that I had to realize that we were not having this discussion face-to-face, but electronically.

Email and texting impart a lot of convenience to our everyday communication. While typing up an email or text is certainly faster than calling or meeting in person, it lacks the personal cues that often make communication meaningful. That’s why it’s very common and easy for misunderstandings to occur. Perhaps the line you intended to be funny didn’t come off that way on the other end. Or you had no intention of being rude, yet your closing remark sounded that way to the recipient.

In a legislative session when bills are moving quickly, many times a quick text is all you can do. My latest bad experience reminded me of the extreme importance of clear and concise electronic communication. As someone once said, “Texting is a brilliant way to miscommunicate how you feel and misinterpret what other people mean.”

With email and text, it is difficult to convey emotion because there are no paralinguistic or nonverbal cues such as gesture, emphasis or intonation. But over the phone you can grasp a good deal about how a person is feeling just by the tone of their voice.

The reason it’s difficult for us to appreciate email and text limitations stems from egocentrism. When you send an email or text, you are essentially “hearing” the statement you intend to send. So if you intend to be funny or sarcastic, you assume that the recipient will also “hear” the message this way. It’s not easy to remember that our audience may, in fact, hear the message differently.

Email and texts, although they have limitations, will be around for a long time. One reason is that we baby boomers know how to use it and are not intimidated by it, unlike other forms of high-tech communication that may be a bit cryptic and hard to use. I’m obviously out of touch.

I have been using email and text messaging for a long time. I’ve had opportunities to observe effective and extremely ineffective use of technology-assisted communication. I don’t understand why some people just toss all courtesy aside and feel they can say anything in public or in writing just because they are using a form of technology.

Jodie Andrefski’s quote, “He seemed to think we were on the same page. I wasn’t even sure we were reading the same book,” often describes our electronic communication.

A good email database or the use of listservs can be beneficial for your county office if you will simply employ certain rules of etiquette.

Let me share a few commandments that I hope you will find helpful in using the various technologies in your communications efforts. Many of these are geared toward email, but could apply to text messaging and other forms of electronic communication.

Commandment 1

“Thou shalt send information to groups. Thou shalt send requests for action to individuals.”

Email is an effective way of sending information to large groups of people. However, if you want someone to take some action, it’s best to ask them individually because you are much more likely to get a response. Here is what I mean: If you are sending out a meeting announcement and you want people to RSVP, it’s good to send out a general email to the targeted group. It is then effective to follow-up with individuals who have not responded. While a little more time-consuming, you will get a much better response that way and it certainly isn’t as time-consuming as making phone calls.

Commandment 2

“Thou shalt be clear and direct, but polite”

Email can be an abrupt medium, and directness can be mistaken for rudeness. I have heard people complain about an email’s “tone.” A good rule of thumb is to address the person by name in the opening of your message and close with your name.

Maybe it was the perceived tone of my text that set off the senator. That was not my intention. Remember: Clear and direct, but polite.

The No. 1 thing to keep in mind when communicating digitally is that tone and attitude are not easily conveyed in writing, and you are not able use body language to help recipients infer what you mean. Many people tend to slip in emoticons like smiley faces or abbreviated “textspeak” like “LOL” to suggest tone and humor. But more often than not, these additions are seen as unprofessional and should not be used in professional messages. Put yourself in the recipients’ shoes and figure out how they may perceive the information you’re sending.

Commandment 3

“Thou shalt read each email thou composes twice, maybe thrice before sending.”

This includes checking who you’re sending it to. You may accidentally send a message to someone you didn’t intend to. (Something I did once ... embarrassing to say the least.) One of these read-throughs should be to check for grammar, spelling and punctuation.

I once got an email from a job applicant responding to a request for an interview. The email looked as if it had been written by someone who didn’t pass the fourth grade; it was full of misspellings and grammatical mistakes. Needless to say this person left a terrible impression and did not get the job.

In fact, why not double the eyes. If what you’re sending is important, or if the impression you need to make on the recipient is crucial, write your email and then get a second opinion. It doesn’t need to be someone with a writing or editing background, just someone who will give you honest feedback about the tone and how your correspondence might be received.

Also, it is really not appropriate to send sensitive or confidential information via email. There are some things that should simply be done in person, such as firing someone or taking disciplinary action with an employee. So if you have to send something sensitive, read it three times, make sure it’s OK to send, and take a deep breath or wait a day before sending. It’s easy to hit “Send” in the heat of the moment and regret it later.

Commandment 4

“Thou shalt ask the question ‘Is this really necessary to send at all?’”

Our inboxes are full of emails that really didn’t need to be sent to us. Be careful of using “CC” and “Reply to All.” They are not necessary in many instances. If you must forward something, be sure to include an explanation and more than just an FYI. You want your messages to be read. But if you are sending too many unnecessary emails, it could be like the boy who cried wolf — your important messages will be missed.

Commandment 5

“Thou shalt be considerate.”

Avoid emailing, taking phone calls or text messaging in meetings, while driving or at the dinner table. I have been an offender of this. It’s fun to email your coworkers and friends when you’re in a boring meeting, but it’s also the height of rudeness. Have you ever been to a meeting in which several people are using their electronic devices to respond to emails or texts? I don’t think anything could be much more distracting, unless it’s a cell phone ringing.

Commandment 6

“Thou shalt remember that email is a

communications tool.”

Try not to become a slave to your computer or smartphone. Back when the Blackberry was the “in thing,” we would have said don’t let the Blackberry become a “crackberry.” It’s your tool to communicate; you should be able to shut if off once in a while.

Commandment 7

“Thou shalt make the subject line stand out.”

Always include a subject line in an email. Keep it simple, but informative. Ensure the subject line is clear and something the recipient cares about. People often decide whether or not to open an email based on the subject line.

Commandment 8

“Thou shalt format properly.”

How you format your email can impact how your message is perceived. For example, USING ALL CAPS is the digital version of shouting. If your intention was to shout, please remember that email is not the place to carry out or respond to a personal attack.

If you need to get someone’s attention, opt for making the text bold, but use it sparingly. Oh, and let’s not forget dreaded text message abbreviations like “u” or “ur” instead of “you” or “your.” I don’t even allow myself to use these in a text let alone an email.

Keep paragraphs short. Email is not read in the same way as a print letter, newspaper or novel; it is quickly scanned rather than read in-depth. Make each paragraph just a couple of lines long so the recipient can easily scan the email to get your message.

Occasionally, email will need to be more complex. Maybe you have three very important points you need to get across. If that’s the case, separate each idea into a distinct paragraph, then number them 1, 2 and 3. You can also announce in the beginning, “Please see the following three points…” If you don’t do this and instead blend the three ideas into one long blurb, the recipient may quit reading before the end and only respond to one of your points.

Commandment 9

“Thou shalt remember that it is

written in stone.”

The problem with writing as opposed to communicating verbally, is that once it’s sent electronically you can’t take it back. How many times have you hit “Send” and said, “Why did I do that?” Plus, writing allows the content to be reviewed and analyzed over and over again, as opposed to a statement in a conversation. And don’t write anything you don’t want someone else seeing. The potential is there for your message to be shared, either purposefully or accidentally.

These commandments are not of biblical proportion — there are not even 10 of them. But they do provide some good guidance for electronic communication.

If you want to be a good communicator, it’s best to communicate with people in the medium they prefer — and through more than one. Also, remember communication is a two-way street. It’s important to make sure you are understood by your intended audience.

I can’t guarantee you’ll become a master communicator if you follow these electronic communications commandments, but your correspondence will be more appreciated by your coworkers, legislators, family and friends.

Studies have found that most of us think we are communicating more effectively via email and text than we actually are. Which means we need to adhere to some or all of these commandments to effectively communicate so we won’t be saying, “I know that you think you understand what you thought I said, but I’m not sure you realize what you heard is not what I meant.”

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