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 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.