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 communicationcan 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 Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Inbox Bloat Recovery
- If you have more than ten days of messages in your inbox, you probably consider it to be bloated. If
it's been bloated for a while, you probably want to clear it, but you've tried many times, and you can't.
Here are some effective suggestions.
- Embolalia and Stuff Like That: II
- Continuing our exploration of embolalia — filler syllables, filler words, and filler phrases —
let us examine the more complex forms. Some of them are so complex that they appear to be actual content,
even when what they contain is little more than "um."
- Exasperation Generators: Irrelevant Detail
- When people relate stories at work, what seems important to one person can feel irrelevant to someone
else. Being subjected to one irrelevant detail after another can be as exasperating as being told repeatedly
to get to the point. How can we find a balance?
- How to Listen to Someone Who's Dead Wrong
- Sometimes we must listen attentively to someone with whom we strongly disagree. The urge to interrupt
can be overpowering. How can we maintain enough self-control to really listen?
- Formulaic Utterances: I
- With all due respect is an example of a category of linguistic forms known as formulaic
utterances. They differ across languages and cultures, but I speculate that their functions are
near universal. In the workplace, using them can be constructive — or not.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
- Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
- And on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
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