Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What's missing from a Text? Context and Subtext

It's the start of an epic love story:

I saw you across a crowded room. I noticed your steely eyes, pursed lips, and striking intensity as you thoughtfully and meticulously tapped characters into your Smart Phone.

Then I watched as you paced anxiously.

I felt the vibration across the room when you received your validation. Your teeth gleamed, you flipped your non-dominant hand through your hair, and gazed approvingly toward the heavens.

I knew then you were a real human being, and not merely an extension of the handheld device you were attached to.

The inspiration for this post came this morning when I read Jake Hodesh's column on Straddling Two Worlds -- Digital and In-Person and decided to hijack some of his message. Though Jake and his colleagues at The Creative Coast would probably soft-sell the thievery and call it "networking."

Anyway, the line that struck me was "In the digital world, emotion is difficult to interpret." Text messages are good way to steer clear of awkward conversations, but sometimes they just create more misinterpretation.  This hasn't just affected our interpersonal communications but our business ones as well.

For example, if I were to receive a text from my boss, I have not yet seen your report, a number of thoughts would go through my head.

1) Is he serious? Maybe he was being ironic in a follow-up to a previous conversation.

2) How come he used "have not" instead of "haven't"? He must be very serious.

3) Why did he use "yet"? Am I slacking?

4) Why did he text me instead of just sending an e-mail?

If we had a phone conversation about this I would've been able to judge his tone and get involved in some give-and-take. But to text him back would involve a lot more thought about how carefully to choose my words, right down to the contractions and characters to make it as succinct and expository as possible. Hey, Text messages are supposed to save time!

And on the interpersonal front when messages are mangled, the answer is to exchange more and more texts. Also time-consuming. Check out the sheer number of communiques from that cheating spouse or that public official.

I hope Tiger Woods and Anthony Weiner sounded out what they were going to say out loud before they punched the words into their phone. It would have saved everyone a lot of time and a lot more trouble.

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