There I was reading the San Francisco Chronicle online when the headline grabbed me: "Gulp, The Pythons Are Coming" and I clicked in. Seems there are pet pythons abandoned to the wild in Florida and they've proved highly adaptable and somewhat mobile-- they can, apparently, travel up to 20 miles a day! The story continues with a somewhat forked-tongue-in-cheek description of how long and how possible it would be for these reptiles to make their way across the country. What's great about this story isn't the python, the ludicrous time-line of migration, or the fact that a puff piece like this could even MAKE the front page of a major metropolitan news outlet. What's great about it is that the dozens and dozens of comments published by readers make it patently clear that YOU ALL-TOO-OFTEN CAN'T DISCERN A JOKE when it's written online!
How many of you have written an email or a blog comment that you thought was perfectly innocuous when you read it back in your mind only to be slammed by readers that didn't "read it the way you wrote it" in your head? Let's face it: a huge limitation to the technology here is that we can't always grasp the subtleties of our language expressed through tone and temperament. Sarcasm can be 'heard' but is often missed or misinterpreted online. We don't get the 'pace' of the spoken expression we 'hear' in our minds when we process what we write. We don't get the same clues when we read it that we get when someone [s-l-o-w-l-y] barks it out with a tone we find impossible to mistake. Humor can be 'heard' as well and we can look for the visible facial cues when we aren't sure if what we heard was intended to be amusing or not. Online, we get none of those extra hints. Folks tried to add those little emoticons as an assist for us and they help-- but really, when you see them don't you have an immediate flashback to that cute little girl in middle school that used to pass you notes that had hearts over the letter "i" and x's and o's above her name [and by the way, if you are she, I thought you were cute and I liked you!]? They work but it's sometimes hard to take those little emoticons seriously. Still, maybe that's the point-- they work and we should take them more seriously....
What can you do to be better understood online? Try these:
- READ IT OVER three times s-l-o-w-l-y OUT LOUD after you've written it.
- ASK SOMEONE TO READ IT AND GIVE YOU FEEDBACK BEFORE YOU EXPLAIN what you were 'trying' to express.
- SAVE IT AS A DRAFT and re-read it later-- step away from the emotion of the moment and 'hear it fresh' again later.
- EDIT YOURSELF-- if you're not sure how it will be taken by the reader, re-write it until you are sure.
- CONSIDER EMOTICONS-- they aren't as professional as good writing but they're better than being misunderstood!