5 Words And Phrases To Handle With Care On The Web

Kim Krause Berg has just authored a very thoughtful post on the power of the words we use on the web. From Kim’s post:

Since people can’t throw pots at each other online, we try to use words to communicate our feelings and ideas. However, it’s not enough to write sentences and be grammatically correct. We still can be misunderstood even though we used our words.

The fact is, words read very differently on the screen than they do when spoken with the modulation of a human voice. Sarcasm, irony, jokes and strong emotions often translate very poorly in the written medium resulting in misunderstandings between author and reader.

One of my favorite American authors, James Thurber, wrote a piece on this subject some 3/4 of a century ago, reflecting on the overuse of the exclamation point and its inability to truly convey intended emotions. One of his examples I recall best was of the brashness of the statement:

I love you!

Thurber thought this read as too loud and hysterical for such an intimate declaration. His suggested alternative:

I love: you.

He opined that this punctuation better encapsulated the breathless catch in a true lover’s voice as he fervently reveals his deepest emotions.

Thurber was being silly, but he was right.

I am frequently guilty of the overuse of exclamation points in my emails when I am trying to convey enthusiasm and friendliness.

I’d love to find out why your hosting just dumped everything off your server!

Somehow, that doesn’t read right.

Like many of you, I fear that my written words, detached from the benefit of my friendly voice, will lack the tone of sincerity that I want to shine through in my communications with valued people. Whether I am interacting online with colleagues, clients or loved ones, I tend to deliberate over and proofread every thing I write before I hit the button that puts my message, irrevocably, before the eyes of the recipient. I’ve determined that there are certain phrases that, while sometimes acceptable in face-to-face communications, read simply horridly. Here’s my list:

1) Oh, come on, Bill

The impatience conveyed by, “oh, come on,” is almost palpable. It may be meant as the merest of chidings in a disagreement, but it comes off as very rude in print. I always cringe when I am reading discussions in forums or on SM sites where, “oh, come on,” makes an appearance. It conveys that Bill is an idiot and no one can believe how stupid he is for having expressed such-and-such opinion. I don’t care if Bill has just declared the meta keywords tags are the key to high rankings. “Oh, come on,” will only serve to humiliate him and will bring a very anti-social element into a social atmosphere.

2) Obvious
When given as an answer to a question that’s been asked, ‘obvious’ is a loaded word. “That’s obvious, isn’t that obvious, that should be obvious,” are all different ways of making the inquirer feel dumb for having asked a question. Chances are, if the answer was already obvious to him, he wouldn’t have asked. It makes the author sound very full-of-themselves, and one is given a glimpsed image of them standing high above the common folk, filled with their knowledge of what is obvious to them, but all darkness to lesser beings.

3) As I’ve Said
This is one that comes off badly both in the spoken and the written form. When you write, “as I’ve said,” you are implying that the person on the other end of the communication tool is forgetful and forcing you to repeat yourself when, really, you’ve got much better things to do with your time. It always sounds cross. Ditch it.

4) But
‘But’ becomes bad when used as a form a sneaking in a negative statement after making a false positive one. ‘Your theory on Local Search is interesting, Bill, but…” The recipient of such a message is likely to experience a sinking feeling as they brace themselves for being told you think they are wrong. Bill will come away only remembering that you thought he was misguided and foolish. I think people fall into this trap in a well-meant attempt to break things gently. I appreciate that consideration, but I don’t think it convinces anyone anymore. A better alternative in the face of disagreement is to show simple proofs of your differing findings with a lead in along the lines of, “I wanted to show you something I found. What do you think of this?”

5) No
‘No’, unadorned by any modifying explanations, is cold. Even when all that’s being asked for is a simple yes or no answer, just saying ‘no’ can read as confrontational and imperious in certain situations. The Gaelic language has made such efforts to avoid this semblance of brusqueness that Irish speakers have no words for ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Rather, they write, ‘it is’ or ‘it isn’t’ and are often prone to using ‘it could be, it might be, in might not be,’ instead. I’m all for plain speaking and sometimes no means no and nothing more, but in writing, a bare ‘no’ can smack of a peremptory and bullish intent. Use it with care.

Kim’s enjoyable post, referenced above, contains a word of advice that when we write something negative, we should balance it with something positive. So, here are some words and phrases that always look well in print and on the screen:

Please
May I ask a favor?
I appreciate this
You really put effort into this
It’s my pleasure
Thank you

Writing is always a step removed from our native, oral means of communication. Think before you speak is something most of us are taught in the cradle. I believe that think before you send has taken on a new importance in this world of such vast activity being transacted on the web. Sometimes, you can modify or take back words you didn’t mean when you’re looking your neighbor in the eye. It can be a lot more difficult when you’ve committed a blunder in print.

3 Responses to “5 Words And Phrases To Handle With Care On The Web”

  1. on 01 Jul 2008 at 4:21 pm Kim Krause Berg

    What an honor to see my flow of thought continued by you, Miriam! (Jumps with joy…smiles. Blushes.)

    Btw, I read Thurber as a kid. I thought he was brilliant and funny.

  2. on 01 Jul 2008 at 4:43 pm Lori

    Great reminder, Miriam! Online communication is indeed very different from the face-to-face kind. Written words have a lot of power.

    At Television Without Pity (where they have very strict, anti-troll rules), you’re not allowed to start a post with “um” based on the assumption that no matter what follows the “um”, you’re trying to correct someone else in a haughty way.

    Sure enough, I notice in real life that whenever I start a sentence with “um”, I’m being petulant!

  3. on 09 Jul 2008 at 1:12 pm admin

    Hi Kim –
    How nice to know that someone else appreciates Thurber. This was standard fare in my family. In fact, when I had my tonsils out as a little girl, my father sat up in the hospital with me all night and read Thurber to me. I really enjoyed your post!

    Lori –
    That’s so funny about ‘um’. I see the reasoning behind that and agree with it. It does sound toploftical. Good point!
    Miriam

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