Discussion: The Power of Language

Posted 29 June, 2012 by Amanda / 29 Comments

Before I get started on this post, I want to preface that this is in no way an etiquette post, nor is it to guilt people for how they responded to a certain situation.  My intent for this post is to create awareness that how we phrase our words while on the Internet is important and that it has a great impact on how people eventually interpret and react to them.  I have been guilty of being irresponsible with my words and I am far from perfect.  The examples I use for this post may be actual words someone has used, but I am only using them to provide my honest reaction to the situation (i.e., I experienced it all) rather than trying to say someone was wrong for saying what he or she did (and, at this point, I don’t even remember who said it).  I use examples to demonstrate the power of language.

The idea for this post started on the day after the fourth Bout of Books was over.  In the course of creating eight different linkies and setting up all the posts, I managed to schedule the opening of the wrap-up linky for the day after the wrap-up post went live.  In other words, the post was up and published, but the linky was closed.  It was how people reacted to this situation that eventually led me to write this.  I will give an example of what happened in a bit.  First, I want to give you an analogy.

That is: the meaning of the words you say is like coffee.  Coffee comes in many different forms.  You can have iced coffee or hot coffee, or light roast or dark roast, or coffee from beans that come from different parts of the world.  It’s all coffee.  But the flavors are different.  If you order coffee, what you get and what you wanted to get may be different.  If I order “coffee” intending to get an organic dark roast coffee from South America, for example, without specifying exactly what I want, I may get vanilla hazelnut flavored Folgers; both are coffee.  And while it’s still all coffee, it’s certainly NOT the same thing.  If you don’t believe me, ask any other self-proclaimed coffee snob.  I am sure they will agree.

Back to the linky situation.  Obviously, when it was brought to my attention, the intent was to make me aware of the problem and to see that it be fixed.  Intent on the Internet, without the benefit of tone of voice and nonverbal cues, will flop and crash if you do not take care in how you say it.  A tweet that was meant to be helpful (I think, since there was a smilely face) was anything but.

The link has the wrong date on it. It doesn’t open until tomorrow. You may want to change that =D

There were a few simultaneous thoughts that occurred to me:

  • The phrase “you may want to change that” makes it sound like I’m too stupid to realize the linky should be open the same day the post goes live.  For the record, I’m not.
  • I didn’t actually want to do anything after spending 50 some hours planning and running Bout of Books.
  • I don’t appreciate people telling me what I may want or not want to do.  That’s for me to decide.
  • There’s no admission or acknowledgement that my life outside of Bout of Books exists or matters.  It’s as though my only task in life is to make sure all BoB problems are addressed as quickly as possible.

Now, imagine that someone had instead said:

I noticed the linky isn’t supposed to open until tomorrow.  Can you fix it when you have time, please?  Thanks.

This accomplishes the same intent: bringing the problem to someone’s attention and seeing that it be fixed.  However, it has an entirely different flavor.  You have a please and a thank you.  You have an acknowledgement that the person’s time matters (i.e., “when you have time”).  It’s a request for assistance rather than a “suggestion.”

A few politeness words go a long way absent of tone of voice or nonverbal cues.  But there’s as much written into what you do not say as what you do say.  Another easy example off the top of my head is the difference between:

“I agree,”


“I don’t disagree.”

Basically they have the same meaning: a lack of disagreement.  The former says, “YES! I agree with you!”  The latter could say, “I agree with you,” but it could also mean, “While I don’t disagree with you, I don’t necessarily fully agree with you either.”  And that can be a big difference.

Because I am a language nerd and I have been trained to find grammatical vagueness in sentences, as well as think about all the possible meanings of words and phrases, this kind of stuff comes naturally.  Usually it involves me taking things waaaaaaaaay too personally, because, like the Bout of Books example above shows, I instantly assume that there is some kind of insult embedded in the words, and my gut reaction is to be nasty and respond, “You know, actually I don’t want to do that.  Who are you to say what I do or don’t want to do?”  Then I have to smack myself a bit and remind myself that most people that I interact with online don’t traipse around waiting to insult me.

What this all comes down to is: you know what you meant to say, but everyone else doesn’t.  Remember when you ordered coffee and got something completely different even though it was still coffee?  Yeah.  We add our own perceptions and experiences into interpreting someone else’s words.  While I don’t think this means we need to tip-toe around each other, I do advocate thinking before you hit publish, or send, or enter.  Be explicit.  Say what you mean.  Explain what led you to make whatever remark you are about to make.  Only you truly know where you are coming from, and on the Internet, your position needs to be communicated as clearly as possible.  Remember that politeness words go a long way.  After all, we are in this together.  We need to get along to thrive and prosper.  Taking care of our language means taking care of each other.


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29 Responses to “Discussion: The Power of Language”

  1. Uh oh. I can’t remember what I said when the Linky was down, but I hope it wasn’t offensive. It was never my intention to tell you to do something.

    It’s hard to notice the subtle nuances of a language you don’t know that well, just like someone who never drinks coffee probably won’t taste the difference between one kind and the other.

    • Don’t worry about it Celine. I don’t remember anything that anyone said anymore.

      And yes, I think that communicating in a second language produces another set of problems as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to make a joke with my students and just getting stared at because they don’t realize I wasn’t serious. It works in other ways as well.

      • Oh totally. Especially jokes are hard to convey in another language. I know quite some people on Twitter think that I’m a very strange person. Then again, I don’t get every joke of theirs either :D

        • People think I’m strange, too, though I doubt it has to do with language barriers. =P I understand what you mean, though. Sometimes it’s hard enough communicating in your OWN language, let alone a second one.

  2. I think this is a great post Amanda – and so very true. The internet is a tricky thing, and it’s so easy to type something and have it taken in a way you never intended because, as you said, no one can hear the tone you would have used had you said it aloud. I’m one of those people who takes things way too personally is well, and I know I read into things that probably aren’t there, but I can’t help it O_o

    Though the blog is built around my snark, I actually try not to employ it too often for just this reason. I think it’s easy for me to come across as a complete a-hole when I’m trying to be funny or witty. Fail.

    Hope you have a great weekend Amanda!

    • Thank goodness I’m not the only one who takes things too personally, Jenny! It’s nice to have company. lol.

      I think that snark in general (not even limited to the Internet) can very easily be seen as asshole-ishness hen that intention isn’t there. I mean, some people just don’t pick up sarcasm very well. Period. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you come across as an a-hole, but then… I love your snark. I want to huggle it, and stroke it lovingly.

  3. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who analyzes each and every little thing tweeted to me. I take everything personally, too. It’s hard not to when there’s only text.

    I’m also glad you addressed this. I think, in this community, a lot bubbles under the surface (so to speak) for a while and then erupts. We all think we know how to best act on Twitter and our sites, but that doesn’t mean we don’t slip up now and again. It’s good to be reminded.

    • I think the biggest problem is that we can only see (or understand) these things from our own perspective. And because we know what we mean, we assume that everyone else will, too. But it unfortunately doesn’t work that way.

  4. Oh man, now I feel like I’m the crazy one, since I think I would be more insulted by the second example, crazy right? I think it raises my hackles because I interpret the tone to sound like someone asking their waiter or employee to do something for them, like they say please and thank you but it’s really just to pretend to be nice because you have to do what they “ask” you to do anyway? Maybe it’s from way to much time serving people in jobs I didn’t like xD. Or maybe it’s just another piece of evidence that communicating on the internet is hard D: .

    • In theory, questions like “will you please turn the page?” in a classroom setting from a teacher is a command, but it’s said as a question to minimize the imbalance of authority (because, you know, equality is important). In that sense, it’s a form of respect rather than pretending to be nice. That is the theory, anyway. Tone of voice also influences how we interpret statements like that.

      I believe I understand what you mean, though, and I think it supports my point that we bring our own experiences and perceptions into someone else’s words.

  5. I think there really needs to be a sarcasm font, but you’re correct Amanda. Without any tone, verbal cues, or even body gestures readers on the internet can’t really decipher the intent of the post.

  6. I say “I don’t disagree” all the time. That and “You’re not wrong”. I think that’s from all my years watching Buffy and my weird obsession with Xander’s silly saying early in the series.

    *huggles you for this post*
    Well said, Miss Amanda! I know that sometimes I go back and read things I’ve written and, even knowing the tone I meant them in at the time, I still boggle over the way it can be misinterpreted.

  7. I don’t disagree with you.


    Seriously, though, I do feel the same way. I have always been someone who over-analyzes everything, and then I went and got a minor in linguistics. And now I have so many more detailed ways to over-analyze everything! lol.

    I think that just like with verbal speech, people don’t always think before submitting something in writing. Which, as you’ve pointed out, makes it hard to distinguish between someone trying to be helpful and someone being “helpful” (passive-aggressive).

    Even emoticons are fraught with multiple possible meanings! Someone might tack on a smiley face (or even an “lol”) at the end in an attempt to show that they mean well and aren’t trying to be rude, but sometimes it gives me the same feeling as a self-righteous smirk or a patronizing smile/pat that can accompany a passive-aggressive comment or thinly veiled insult.

    Because of this, I sometimes take ages trying to respond to something in text, because I stress myself out trying to anticipate all the different ways my words might be interpreted. I know, it’s neurotic. Ah well.

    Great post!

    • Oh, Colleen, you are not ALONE! I have always been someone who over analyzes things and my education just made it worse, too.

      I am probably also overly sensitive to passive-aggressiveness because it’s so prevalent in Minnesota (Minnesota Nice is often a form of passive aggressiveness). Like a sign on a trash can that said, “Trash goes here” with an arrow pointing into the trash can. Because “Do not throw your trash on the ground” doesn’t work?

      lol and smiley faces are the devil! Without tone of voice, you could say something mean, but then tack on one of those and be like, “Just kidding!” even though you’re not.

      I take a long time to respond to things in text, too. I don’t know that it’s neurotic. Perhaps more… conscientious. Yes. It’s just that we’re conscientious people.

  8. THIS IS SOOO TRUE!! While I might write something in one tone of voice, I always reread it, trying to make sure it *sounds* the way I intended. I supposed this comes from my communication with my students’ parents via email–I’ve learned the hard way. Uhg. Trust me. HARD WAY.

    But not everyone thinks like that. Some actually ARE being passive-aggressive, some are being rude, and some just aren’t thinking. I *try* not to be offended and, most of the time, fail miserably. But yay–I’m not alone in my tone-reading sensitivity and reactions! *hugs*

    • *huggles* Yay for not being alone!

      Since I started blogging, I have learned to be very careful in what I post on my blog and, with all the drama out there, especially what I post on Twitter. I don’t want people to twist my words into something I didn’t mean. It is, sadly, relatively easy to do.

  9. I had to send something off to someone the other day to read it before I posted it on another site. My tone to me has been very negative lately and wanted to make sure that the article didn’t sound that way.

    When people say something to me though (write a comment, send an email) I have found that how I interpret it is often based on my mood. Which I guess is on me and not the person writing. It still steams me sometimes though.

    • I’m pretty self-aware, so whenever I feel extremely negative, I tend to withdraw as much as I can to avoid spreading my negativity (which is why I’ve been absent a lot lately). And whenever I do write something that borders on negative, I either delete it or try to rework it. But I’m sure some of that leaks out anyway.

      I tend to read into things based on my mood, too. Even past dealings with the person can color whatever they say. So, you are not alone!