Computers killed the typewriter. Internet killed the phone book. Will texting and social media kill communication? Maybe not. But certainly, it has drastically changed the way we interact with each other. In fact, although we may be reaching out more through the ease of cell phone and Internet socialization, the meaning behind our messages may be suffering as a result.
One of the greatest advantages of the new era of communication is the ability to quickly-and instantly-get the word out. But that same benefit also creates some drawbacks. Namely, the increased likelihood of mistakes and misinterpretations.
When texting, proper spelling or grammar isn’t a priority, but a simple one-letter switch-out can seriously change the meaning of your words. Imagine a “conversation” where you inadvertently type “fat” instead of “fab” when referring to a friend’s outfit, or quickly text a colleague that the meeting is “sex” instead of “set.” Oops. Once the send button is pressed, there’s no turning back. The message is received, and interpreted, in a matter of seconds. Even if you note your error and make a quick rebuttal, the damage may already be done.
Similarly, and perhaps even more consequential, is the misinterpretation that can result due to the lack of intonation, voice expression, and body language signals. When communicating electronically, there are no verbal cues from which to interpret the tone or meaning of your statements. For example, if your husband texts, “going out with the guys after work. Ok?” and you reply, “fine,” he can’t really tell if it’s ok or not. Are you fine as in “ya, sure, that’s fine. Have fun!” or fine as in “fine. whatever. i’ll just sit here and keep your dinner warm.”
With tweeting and Facebook commenting, the same hold true, but on a wider scale, as your entire list of friends and followers will be scrutinizing your messages in their own way. Say you post or tweet an announcement of some kind. For example, “Johnny just got named president of the chess club. Makes a mother proud!” Those reading who think of chess as an impressive game and an admirable pursuit may interpret your message as sincere; while those who instantly think in terms of nerds and geeks may believe you are being sarcastic. In turn, comments may come back that are offensive or, at the very least, surprising, and feelings and friendships could actually suffer.
The power of words can’t be disputed. Words can sway opinions, pacify anger, instill terror, or generate goodwill. The words we use and they way we say them have impact on those who absorb their meaning. In fact, in the medical community, studies have proven that the simple word “may” is so impactful that it can actually have a physical affect on a patient.
Known as the nocebo effect, Latin for “I will harm,” a nocebo is a suggestion that inadvertently renders a negative effect. When a doctor warns that, “this may hurt,” it’s more likely to hurt, simply because he’s put the suggestion into the patient’s mind. If a pharmacist suggests a prescription “may cause dizziness,” the chance of vertigo increases exponentially. If no mention of the side-effect was ever made, there would likely be no reaction.
So how does the nocebo effect translate into social media terms? The mere addition (or deletion) of simple words or phrases, when used in printed form, can, like the nocebo effect, cause an inadvertent negative reaction. Even if the omission of words was unintentional, and eventually clarified, the power of suggestion takes over. The negative message has already been processed and has altered the recipient’s viewpoint. Your message to your friend that her jeans looked “fat”, even if immediately re-texted as “fab” will stick in her mind. She’ll think you called her fat!
The instantaneous nature of texting, tweeting, facebooking, and even emailing, often makes for sloppy messaging. You’re spitting out your thoughts so quickly, you often aren’t choosing your words with care. With personal messages, the miscommunications can cause arguments, confusion, or hurt feelings. But in office settings, this can be especially detrimental.
Long ago, before the days of computer convenience, inter-office communications were sent via the memo. A memo was typically relayed verbally by the boss to the secretary, who then laboriously typed it, returned it to the boss for editing and proofing, and then re-typed it with the corrections in place. The memo would only be distributed after this several-step process, ensuring the perfection and clarity of the message.
Today, emailing, and sometimes texting, has replaced the memo in the workplace. A change in a deadline, a new policy, a brainstorming epiphany, or even a friendly “suggestion” can lose something in the translation of a cut-to-the-chase instant message. With this kind of hurried communication, all sorts of misunderstandings can occur, with consequences that vary from missed opportunities to outright failures.
So, is social media, emailing, and texting causing us to be less, rather than more communicative? Jury’s still out on that one. It is clear, however, that the message can be suffering at the expense of speed. But don’t pull out the mimeograph machine, typewriter, stationery, or even (gulp!) telephone to do all your communicating just yet. Clearly, those days are gone. Just remember that the point of all this new, easy gadgetry is to keep you better connected. Be sure there’s not a disconnect between what you’re saying and what you actually mean.
Sheri Staak has served in many Vice Presidential roles at both large privately held and publicly traded global companies. She’s a corporate powerhouse and has been the recipient of numerous sales awards and recognitions. In addition to her key position in a highly aggressive, extremely competitive industry, Sheri is a regular contributor to a travel newsletter, lending her expertise by writing articles that provide tips and advice for business travelers. She also shares her wisdom and business perspectives with regular postings at her leadership-focused blog, The Staak Report, www.sheristaak.com.