What Did You Say?

It might not be what you thought you said.

“I didn’t steal Joe’s green pen” is a sentence that might seem to convey only a single meaning, but the reality is that it can convey many. In the traditional example, you have the following alternatives:

I didn’t steal Joe’s green pen.” [It was Bob! He took it!]
“I didn’t steal Joe’s green pen.” [Even though you think I did.]
“I didn’t steal Joe’s green pen.” [I just, you know, borrowed it without asking.]
“I didn’t steal Joe’s green pen.” [It was Bob’s.]
“I didn’t steal Joe’s green pen.” [I took the red one.]
“I didn’t steal Joe’s green pen.” [I took his green stapler.]

That’s a powerful lesson in both speaking and listening. Be mindful of the inflection you use, and be mindful of the inflection that you observe in others. But there’s more to it.

The modern era has taken that lesson and given it about a million more dimensions. What’s the difference, in writing, between “i didnt steal joes green pen” and “I DIDN’T STEAL JOE’S GREEN PEN!!” How about if one has an emoji after it? Which emoji? What if you get it in an email versus a Slack message versus a text? What if it’s public or private? Are you bcc’ed? If you’re not, who is?

I’ve met people who somehow manage to sound incredibly hostile in every email they send, despite being incredibly pleasant people in person. And of course, a funny thing about the modern era is that I consider video chat and even a phone call to be “in person” – after all, I can hear their voice live, which is enough to qualify as far as I’m concerned.

There’s an old adage that communication happens in the mind of the reader/listener, not the words of the speaker. That’s true – which means you can sound hostile in an email even if there isn’t a hostile word in it. You don’t realize just how much heavy lifting your tone is doing for you in most “live” conversations. As soon as you remove it, words you say every day can sound totally different.

If this has been a challenge for you in the past (and it has for me!), then you probably won’t solve it overnight. You can’t perfectly anticipate the “mind of the reader” for every person you communicate with, especially if you haven’t made it a practice in the past. But what you can do, is be honest about that up front, and establish certain “rules” early on.

For instance, someone I know has in their email signature the following disclaimer: “Please assume any hostility in the tone of this email is entirely unintentional, and accept both my apology and my invitation to provide feedback.” Then there’s a little smiley face. That’s nice! It shows, at the bare minimum, that this person has thought about this concept at least once in their life and decided to make some positive effort towards improving. That’s better than a lot of people do.

No matter what, be flexible. These rules change. Some people seem hostile in emails because they came up in an era where it would be unthinkable to deliberately leave out punctuation just to soften an otherwise stern-sounding statement via text message. And people sending emojis now might not adapt well in ten more years where it turns out emojis are generally seen as super patronizing and rude. Who knows? The point is that honesty goes a long way – it’s okay to not know every informal rule, but all anyone really wants is effort. Show genuine effort and care, and you can get a pass on a whole lot of other stuff. Even in writing, a smile goes a long way.


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