Communications are not ‘Mere words’

I am lucky to have been exposed to on-line communications for over three decades. The airline industry as far as the early sixties communicated on line: first with telexes then later through a network of computer terminals. This form of communication is quite distinctive to the normal written letter and mail mode. Communicating through emails which is now the most common way requires different reflexes. Texting and SMS are invading our communications sphere. What are the rules to obey? Do you consider the usefulness of the message sent to your addressees?

This recent article, entitled ‘Mere Words’ from the web highlights some aspects we have to watch out in particular with the internet.

Mere Words:

How to improve your online communication

by Barbara Neal Varma

You’re trying to figure out why your wife’s brother just sent you a flaming e-mail-at work, no less-when a message pops up from your boss with only question marks in the subject line, (that can’t be good), your daughter texts you to ask for permission to stay overnight with her “BFF,” whatever that is, and you’ve got close to 200 e-mails all with red priority flags like ants on your screen. You rub your gritty, glare-strained eyes and wonder: When did simply communicating get to be so hard?

You’re not alone. With today’s popularity in e-mailing, blogging and texting, more than half of our conversations are written instead of verbal. While convenient, experts say confusion can easily occur when the usual visual cues such as facial expression are not present. “It’s easier to spot signals when meeting someone face-to-face,” says Dr. Will Reader of Sheffied Hallam University in his recent study on online social networks. “It’s harder to spot signals online.”

So how do we get our messages safely across the virtual divide? Follow these easy steps to make your electronic communication more clear and comprehensible.

At Work

Get to the Point – Ever receive an e-mail so long it made your Starbucks turn cold? Or do you stop reading after one paragraph? Studies show that the attention span of online readers is significantly shorter than those reading printed material. “In research on how people read Web sites, we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across,” says Web page usability expert Dr. Jakob Nielsen. He recommends using half the word count or less than conventional writing when composing electronic messages.

Another good habit to practice: write in active, not passive voice; “Jill promoted Jack” instead of “Jack was promoted.” The latter begs the question, by whom? Busy business folks don’t have time for mysteries.

Begin your message with your main points: your question, your answer, your researched information then fill in the details behind instead of starting with a yawner of a preamble. Think of any follow-up questions your recipients may have and address them in your original message to avoid a rush of return e-mails.

Get it Right – Every social scientist or hiring official will tell you within the context of face-to-face communication, appearance means everything. Political correctness aside, people tend to form quick impressions based on others’ outward appearance, the golden rule for every dress-for-success seminar. Don’t let typos or sloppy grammar ruin your good image online. Remember, your e-mail has the potential to be shared with every other colleague and client in the company. Avoid leaving a legacy of cyber errors with your signature at the bottom. Don’t depend on Spell Check to catch every spelling mistake. Some misspellings make perfectly spelled words by themselves and, therefore, don’t generate a red squiggly line alert.

Keep it Professional – Hey, no one likes to be YELLED AT. Using all caps in your message means you are shouting, and if your recipient is the company vice president or an important client, he or she might not appreciate your uppity tone. Remember, your readers are not seeing you on their computer monitor, they are seeing your words; guard them and your reputation well. “My e-mail is a piece of professional communication that speaks to the person who wrote it,” says Human Resources Director Diana Clark during a recent career readiness seminar. “Don’t use slang,” she advises. “Don’t use capital letters. Don’t use inappropriate dialogue with a co-worker. Somebody else is going to see that, then it goes to the boss.”

And save the winsome daisy background and jumping graphics for your MySpace page. There’s no crying in baseball and there’s no room for emoticons (smiley faces and their winking cousins) in business e-mail. Using cartoons to punctuate your prose just looks, well, cartoonish.

At Home

Think Before You Send – “Susan” stared at the computer screen, not believing her eyes, but there it was: a flaming e-mail from her brother listing everything he felt she’d done wrong regarding their elderly mother’s care. His words were harsh; he said things she had no idea he was thinking, let alone willing to say. But that’s the point: he hadn’t said them at all. He’d e-mailed her instead.

Social psychologists liken these e-mail eruptions to the “road rage” phenomenon when otherwise calm folks suddenly become avenging drivers, exhibiting symptoms of outrage and anger not consistent with their everyday behavior. The key and catalyst in both road rage and e-rage is the perceived sense of privacy and power the car/computer conveys.

So what to do if you are on the other side of a hostile e-mail? First, like in any good emergency, stay calm. Your options are to respond in kind (tempting…), respond with calmer words to explain your side of things, or ignore the e-mail but pay attention to the sender and give them a call. You might discover there was more emotion to the message than sincerity and with a verbal conversation, you can better figure out the core problem. If the message is truly an attack on you, your family, or your golden retriever, simply delete it without reply and perhaps restrict your interaction. You’ve learned something about this individual and how they prefer to handle stress-by venting at you.

Be Versatile – Sure, you may yearn for the good old days when talking to someone meant they were actually in the same room, but with today’s variety of virtual communication, you might just as easily have a conversation with your friend in Timbuktu as you do with your next door neighbor. Instant messages, Web blogs, Facebook, MySpace; today’s technology has advanced our ability to stay in touch almost to the point of Star Trek’s famous “Beam me up, Scotty” communicators. Cell phones, especially, have become the new communicator to the current generation of teens and twenty-somethings, bringing forth a whole new cyber-lingo with enough acronyms and abbreviations to seem more code than conversation.

Take a computer course, learn how to use the latest e-mail programs and read that instruction manual for your cell phone that you’d tucked away thinking you already know how to use a phone, right? As you become more proficient at the many and varied ways to communicate today, you will not only expand your circle of friends and family ties, you’ll be opening up opportunities for connecting with others on a world-wide scale.

Practice Safe Text – On the one hand, e-mail lets us be ourselves. There’s no worry about spinach stuck in teeth or a lock of hair out of place. Men don’t even need to shave first. For those interested in meeting a potential dating prospect online, all this lack of posing and pretense makes e-mail conversations particularly personal: It’s just you and your chat partner with nothing between you but mere words.

But it’s that very bubble of easy intimacy that makes the Internet a virtual land of opportunity for imposters. Every year thousands of Internet users fall victim to identity theft, lulled like Cyrino’s Roxanne into believing that the message sender is who they say they are: a long lost friend, an enticing new acquaintance. A new-found love.

If you’re meeting new people online, practice the art of privacy until you are sure he or she (do we really know which?) is who they write they are. Don’t disclose your shoe size, your favorite American Idol candidate or your social security number to someone you don’t know well, and communicate via computer only in those contexts where you feel safe. Add a little restraint to your online chat and don’t fall for good-looking Subject lines suddenly appearing in your inbox. The person behind the prose might just well be a wolf in e-clothing.

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#1 Posts about Social Studies as of March 28, 2009 | on 03.28.09 at 4:16 pm

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