Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 46;   November 11, 2020: Mastering Messaging for Pandemics: II

Mastering Messaging for Pandemics: II


When pandemics rage, face-to-face meetings are largely curtailed. Clarity in text messaging and email therefore becomes more important. Some sources of confusion that might not be noticeable in speech can cause real trouble in messaging.
A pair of pears

A pair of pears. Image by BecBartell.

In Part I of this exploration, I noted several practices for citing dates and times that reduce the probability of confusion. But our messages consist of much more than dates and times. Patterns of language that cause little trouble when spoken can be disastrous in messages, because the feedback loop for the messaging context is so much longer than is the feedback loop for spoken communication. In messaging, the sender might not realize that something has gone amiss until enough time has passed for real trouble to occur.

Here are four examples of patterns that can cause trouble in messaging.

"Can't," "cannot," and "couldn't"
The words can't, cannot, couldn't, and friends, fail to distinguish between willingness, ability, and authority. For example, when Eric was asked how long ago his team lead had told him of the change in requirements, he responded, "I really couldn't say." Was he unwilling? Unable? Not allowed?
When expressing the idea that compliance with a request isn't forthcoming, explaining why not is important. An inability to comply is different from an unwillingness to comply, and both inability and unwillingness differ from lacking the authority to comply. In Eric's case, his response doesn't tell us whether he doesn't know, or he knows but doesn't want to say, or he knows or doesn't know, but in either case, he isn't permitted to say.
In messages, using either can't, cannot, or equivalent terms to express the idea that compliance isn't forthcoming leaves the recipient free to choose an interpretation. And the recipient's choice might lead to trouble for sender, recipient, or both.
Pronouns are words such as it, that, this, those, them, they, him, her, she, he, his, hers, theirs, and their. A pronoun is a word that substitutes for a noun or noun phrase. It refers to a noun or noun phrase previously mentioned in the discourse in which it (the pronoun) appears. The noun or noun phrase to which the pronoun refers is called the referent.
Pronouns Troubles happen in messaging because
feedback loop for the messaging context
is so much longer than is the feedback
loop for spoken communication
can create problems when their referents are ambiguous or undefined. To remove the ambiguity, simply replace the pronoun with its referent, or leave it in place and follow the pronoun with the referent in parentheses. That's what I did in the previous paragraph where I inserted "(the pronoun)" following it.
A very common source of pronoun ambiguity arises when the conversation topic includes multiple people of the same gender. In that situation, he or she might refer to more than one individual, and confusion can result. When the topic includes multiple people of the same gender, it's safer to use names than pronouns.
Name ambiguity
As noted above, because pronouns can be sources of ambiguity, we must sometimes use personal names to avoid ambiguity when referring to people. But what if two people on the same team, or in the same conversation, share the same familiar name? Or worse, what if they share the same surname as well? Avoiding ambiguity can then become a bit tricky.
Some resort to numbering people: Jennifer Two, or Ali One. Not a good idea. Confusion results when people forget which Jennifer is Jennifer One and which Jennifer is Jennifer Two. And in some cultures, being a One is subjectively regarded as conferring higher status than being a Two. Status differences, especially unearned status differences, can be trouble.
A lower-risk approach is to attach a neutral modifier to the person's familiar name. Geography is usually safe. Examples: "Jennifer in Singapore," or "Ali in New York."
Choose your modifiers carefully. For example, it's dangerous to identify one Ali as the Smart Ali, because that would imply that the other Ali isn't smart.
Homophonic confusions
A homophone is a word that's pronounced the same way as another word, but differs in meaning or (possibly) spelling. For example, in U.S. English, pear/pair/pare are homophones of each other, as are you're/your and rain/rein/reign. A homophonic confusion happens when we type one homophone, but we meant to type another. An example: "We can't bare any shortcomings in our performance."
Text messaging and email messaging are troublesome enough without homophonic confusions. And we can't rely on spell checkers to catch them, because these confusions are usually spelled correctly.
To reduce the incidence of homophonic confusions, we must proofread our messages before sending them. And since these confusions are more likely to occur when we're hurrying, proofreading is the one thing we'd rather not do. So when you're in a hurry, remember: this is exactly the time when proofreading is most important.

The patterns above are four of the fairly common sources of confusion in messaging. There are dozens more. Examples are unusual words, acronyms, initialisms, weirdly complex sentences, and unnoticed but disastrous autocorrect fails. When you notice a confusing pattern not described here, add it to your collection. Use that collection to help you compose messages that are less likely to be sources of trouble. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Newly Virtual Politics: Meetings  Next Issue

101 Tips for Writing and Managing EmailAre you so buried in email that you don't even have time to delete your spam? Do you miss important messages? So many of the problems we have with email are actually within our power to solve, if we just realize the consequences of our own actions. Read 101 Tips for Writing and Managing Email to learn how to make peace with your inbox. Order Now!

Where There's Smoke There's EmailAnd if you have organizational responsibility, you can help transform the culture to make more effective use of email. You can reduce volume while you make content more valuable. You can discourage email flame wars and that blizzard of useless if well-intended messages from colleagues and subordinates. Read Where There's Smoke There's Email to learn how to make email more productive at the organizational scale — and less dangerous. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

Doodles by T.D. Lee, created while working with C.N. YangDismissive Gestures: III
Sometimes we use dismissive gestures to express disdain, to assert superior status, to exact revenge or as tools of destructive conflict. And sometimes we use them by accident. They hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part III of a little catalog of dismissive gestures.
William Tecumseh Sherman as a major general in May 1865On Badly Written Email
Even those who aren't great writers do occasionally write clearly, just by chance. But there are some who consistently produce unintelligible email messages. Why does this happen?
A 155 mm artillery shell is visible as it exits the barrel of an M-198 howitzer during trainingWhen the Answer Isn't the Point: II
Sometimes, when we ask questions, we're more interested in eliciting behavior from the person questioned, rather than answers. Here's Part II of a set of techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking.
An off-putting conversationUnintended Condescension: I
Condescending remarks can deflect almost any conversation into destructive directions. The lost productivity is especially painful when the condescension is unintended. Here are two examples of remarks that others might hear as condescension, but which often aren't intended as such.
A hotshot crew conducts burnout operations on the Derby FireSignificance Messages
Communications about important matters must provide both the facts of a situation and the significance of those facts. The facts often receive adequate attention, but at times the significance of the facts is worthy of more attention than the facts.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Vulture getting ready to strike a dying prey, KenyaComing March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
Bust of Aristotle. Marble. Roman copy after a Greek bronze originalAnd on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.