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Rethinking communication in an arm’s-length world

Robin Trimingham says it is time that everyone understood that it is never acceptable to lash out at another human being in writing

I remember a friend from Sweden telling me that Swedish is a very difficult language for non-native speakers to learn because a correct understanding of the language depends not so much on knowing the vocabulary as it does on understanding how to interpret the subtle nuances embedded in a conversation.

I am beginning to think that English is the same.

As a native speaker of English, I take my ability to correctly interpret the words that are spoken to me pretty much for granted (as do most people I suspect).

But as the world becomes more virtual with an increasing amount of communication taking place at arm’s length in the form of e-mail, text and online chat is it wise to assume that we know what is being communicated when we read something? Or are we in fact entering a phase of human development where it is becoming increasingly important not only to be as clear as possible when we ourselves are communicating, but also to verify that we are understanding the information that we are receiving correctly?

Consider the following sentence: “I didn’t say he helped his sister.”

As you read those seven words you most likely assumed that you understood this very simple statement.

But did you?

Did you realise that depending on the word that is emphasised within the sentence it can have seven entirely different meanings?

If you are unsure that I mean by this, try reading the sentence aloud seven times and emphasise a different word in the sentence each time and see what happens.

So, what’s the point?

Well, if you are attempting to get tech support from an online chatbot would you address it an emotional manner and assume it would be able to understand how frustrated you are that your computer is not working?

Of course not. You can only ask it for help with a very specific technical problem and your chances of receiving assistance depend on your ability to describe the problem you are having clearly, accurately and unemotionally.

But what if you are texting or e-mailing another person?

Using bold font or capital letters in an e-mail may tell the recipient (friend or foe) that we are angry, but does the robotic machine understand the message or does it simply ignore the capital letters and respond in its usual fashion?

Granted it’s tempting to hammer out an e-mail when you are agitated or busy, and rush on to the next task, but can you really type an inflammatory message in haste and assume that the recipient will correctly understand the information that you are transmitting or the nature of the assistance that you are requesting?

Obviously not.

But it does raise a good question: if we can agree that clear unemotional communication is the only effective way to interact with a machine in a business capacity, why do we persist in treating each other with less regard?

In short isn’t it about time that we ceased assuming that it is ever acceptable to lash out at another human being in writing?

Robin Trimingham is the managing director of The Olderhood Group Ltd and a business consultant, journalist, podcaster and thought leader in the fields of life transition and change management. Connect with Robin at https://bit.ly/3nSMlvc or robin@olderhood.com

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Published February 08, 2022 at 7:59 am (Updated February 08, 2022 at 7:54 am)

Rethinking communication in an arm’s-length world

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