Safety First: Mind Your Tone

This month’s Safety First post is a full year in the making.  Inspired from a fall-out caused by some of my posts on Col. Corbane’s blog, I immediately knew a blog entry on personality and tone was required.  Try as I might though, I was unable to come up with the right phrasing to make it work.  

A year later, I’m committed to putting something to paper, and voila: this post is born.  

The Incident

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Col. Corbane is the proprietor of Corbania Prime, the quintessential Imperial Guard blog, and the heart of The Parade Ground (a blog network of IG players).  Despite a momentary lull in posts due to real life issues, he’s still managed to churn out some excellent posts, and developed his niche of the blogosphere into something special.  So, if you didn’t consider him notorious back then, you surely do by now.  

And that last statement gets to the crux of the matter.  When some people see the word “notorious,” they use it as a synonym for famous (which it is), but others read into it as being famous “for doing something bad” (which it also means).  These multi-purpose words have different connotations based upon the context, as well as the previous experiences of both the writer and the reader.  Regardless of the intent, things can be misconstrued, and this post is intended to inspire some thought on the subject.  

So, back to the example at hand.  About a year ago, our much beloved member of the blogging community, Col. Corbane specifically requested that I stop posting comments on his blog.   I was shocked by this, as he was one of the most respected members of the blogging community, and I looked up to him tremendously.  To hear that I’d unwittingly offended him was astonishing to me.    

In response, I sent him an email apologizing, and then inquiring as to what caused such a comment.  Part of his response:   

“To be honest, this isn’t just about your last post, there’s been a run of posts recently which I’ve taken sarcastically, so much so that I even raised the issue with FTW Ron and he agreed that he perceived them negatively as well. Now from what you’ve said in your email, it’s clear that this wasn’t your intention but it is how they came across…”   

So now I’d unittingly offended two of the pillars of the blogging community…  can this possibly get worse?  During our discourse, I’d asked for some examples of where I’d been offensive, and the Colonel dutifully obliged:   

In hindsight (and even at the time), those comments don’t seem bad to me, but again, I’m looking at them from my own perspective.  And to Corbane’s credit, keep in mind that I put him on the spot for examples, and these are three that he came up with.  There might’ve been more seedy comments I’d made on posts prior (such as my insistance on calling Dverning from Maunders of a 40k Gamer “Pony Boy”, a name by which, he found funny himself).    

Speaking of which, has anyone heard from Dverning recently?   

The original banner I suggested for Dverning

 

Back on topic:  I’m certain there were more comments that lead the Colonel to believe I was being malicious.  What matters is that whether or not I’d intended to, I’d managed to offend someone whom I’d greatly respected.   

The Problem:

The problem stems from a communication gap, which can happen through any form of communication, but is often further complicated in writing, due to the omission of “non-verbal” communication (definition here).     Essentially, non-verbal communication is conveying thoughts, emotions, or ideas without using words (either spoken or written).  During the course of a normal face-to-face conversation, this includes things like:   

  • Gesturing with your hands
  • Facial Expressions
  • Body position
  • Changes in tone or inflection

Without the ability to pick up on body language, facial cues, or changes in tone, writing is at an inherent disadvantage to other mediums.  Because of this, readers are more prone to misinterpretation of the original intent of the message–which makes it all the more important that the sender take extra precaution to ensure his message is clear (no offense to the ladies in the audience, I just prefer to write without all of the his/her pronouns).    

Other Compounding Factors

As if conveying humor through written media wasn’t already difficult enough, there are more factors that only serve to compound the problem.  Some of these include:   

  • Improper Punctuation:  A personal pet peeve of mine (despite improperly punctuating far too many posts myself, I’m sure).  Punctuation and Grammar are crucial to conveying messages.  All too often, people leave out punctuation altogether, or omit a crucial comma that will change the way a sentence reads.   Consider how different the conversation at the left is from the original intent, simply because someone omitted a comma.
  • Language Barriers:  To make things even more difficult, our blogs span a little something called the internet.  Here’s a little known fact: the internet is used in every country (except Egypt right now, but hopefully they’ll get it back soon).  This means that many of the people who are reading your posts aren’t native English speakers.  Even those that are, may have a different definition of words depending upon where they came from, or their life experiences.  Here is a link to a wikipedia article of words that mean something completely different when an American says them and when a Brit says them.
  • Being Me: Well, you likely don’t suffer from this afflication (at least not directly), but I most certainly do.  One problem I have is that I have a particularly dry sense of humor.  Comedians like Mitch Hedberg crack me up to no end, and that’s all in the delivery.  In some ways, I try to emulate them in my own comedy.  As a result, I find that many people can’t even tell if I’m joking when I’m face to face with them (though I can’t tell whether that means I’m successful in the joke, or just horrible at comedy altogether). 

Mitigating Factors:

The best way to ensure you never have such communication problems is to simply stop blogging, writing, talking, or communicating in any way possible.  Unfortunately, that’s a little less than practical for anyone outside of a Tibetan monestary.  For those of us who intend to continue writing, some things to consider include:   

  • Political Correctness: When in doubt, it’s best to only write things that you would say in front of your grandmother.  It reduces your content to a lowest-common denominator and, unless your grandmother hangs out in biker bars, is sure not to offend.  Naturally, this includes things like omitting curse words, racial slurs, innuendos, and such out of your writing, but how much can things like that really be adding to your message anyway?
  • Proof-reading:  Without a doubt, this is the single most important step you can take to ensure your message is clear.  Not only will it help to catch grammar/spelling mistakes, but it can help you catch potentially problematic statements as well.  Better still, have someone else proof-read your work for you.  This works great because when you proof-read your own work, you’ll find that you often read what was intended and not necessarily what was written. If you can’t find someone to proof-read your own work, a couple of tricks you can use are to speak everything aloud when proof reading.  That way you engage more parts of your brain, and have a chance to hear not only how the words look, but also how they sound.  You can also try proof-reading your own work backwards (which is to say, start at the last sentence, and read your way up from the end).  This is supposed to help you seperate each sentence from the whole, and increase your liklihood of catching some problems (though if you manage to do this, let me know… it seems kludgy to me).
  • Emphasis: Sometimes, you can use writing styles, like italicizing, to emphasize words as being sarcastic.  This doesn’t always work, but if your reader is even partially offended, they’re more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt if they see you took some size to put special emphasis on the word.  (Take note, making letters bold seems to have the opposite effect).
  • Emoticons:  ;p =)  >.< In the past, I abhored these little devils; however, they do a wonderful job at conveying emotion.  If you end a sentence with a smiley face, it’s hard to think you meant any harm.  Though, do keep in mind that some people will read into emoticons a little more deeply than you might’ve intended.  The silly emoticon 😛 has been known to ruffle some feathers in the past, causing some people to think of it as a taunt: sticking your tongue out at them.
  • Cartoon from Cartoonstock.com

    Explanations: Explanations can completely ruin the impact of a joke, but if there’s a chance that your joke can offend, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to elaborate.  This is especially true of “inside jokes.”  While they can be humorous when shared among friends, outsiders may take them as insulting.  Case in point: one of the things that the Colonel seems to have used as a reference is my constant referring to Dverning as “pony boy.”  Though he actually took a shining to that name, there’s no way Corbane could’ve known that.  As such, my inside-joke tainted the way I was viewed.   An explanation, or simple omission of the nickname might’ve gone a long way to preventing the confrontation.   

In general, just raising your own awareness of the potential for such problems is bound to decrease the liklihood something like this will ever happen to you.   

Handling Confrontation

If you’re at all like me, you’re bound to come across some sort of confusion over the words you’ve used.  Contrary to popular belief, confrontation isn’t a bad thing, nor is it something to be avoided.  Personally, I rather like confrontation, as a means to get a solution–but it’s all in how you handle that confrontation.   

For those that may be leery with the concept that confrontation can be a good thing, let me elaborate.  In “the incident” talked about above, when the Colonel originally wondered if I was intending to be insulting, how much heartache could’ve been saved by just asking me?  (Not that I’m blaming him for anything that transpired, mind you, but if he’d come to me and asked why I was saying such rude things to begin with, it could’ve helped prevent it from snowballing further).  Likewise, when he’d finally had enough, confrontation was how we were able to come to terms and put the incident behind us.   

But it’s all in how that was handled.  Starting an internet flame war is never conducive to an amicable solution.  So, as soon as I found out there was a problem, I immediately contacted him directly to resolve it.  Since I’d unwittingly caused harm, I proceeded to apologize, and sought out what was offense, so that I could correct my own behavior, all the while, I reaffirmed to him my thought process behind each comment.    Admitting fault is a great way to neutralize a situation.   Nothing difuses a situation as much as simply stating, “You were right, it’s my fault.”    

Benefit of the Doubt

The biggest thing to remember here is that writing is a two-way means of communication.  Both you, and the reader are involved in this process, and both sides can unwittingly be the cause of a miscommunication.  When these situations arise, I emplore everyone to give their fellow citizens of the blogosphere the benefit of the doubt.  If you feel wronged by something someone else has said, let them know in a private and polite manner: you might be surprised at their response.   

Because of some mature responses to this little altercation, I’m happy to say that the Colonel and I are getting along swimmingly now.  So, if you’ve been living on a desert island and haven’t already done so, go check out Corbane’s Blog and wish ’em well.  Just be sure to explain very clearly when you’re being sarcastic. 🙂 Scientest image from the Simpsons, copyright by FOX “Fired You’re” image from Cartoonstock.com

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21 comments on “Safety First: Mind Your Tone

  1. The loss of inflection when typing is one of the (many) reasons why I find the popularity of ‘texting’ baffling.

    All good points, and one I’ve run into many times myself. However as a blogger and someone who (frequently) posts comments on the internet, its liable to be a problem for me right up on to my eventual end.

    • I loathe texting so much because it’s an additional charge. I can send an
      email on my phone for free, but texts cost $.35 each, and they aren’t as
      ubiquitously received as emails (which can be checked by anyone with a
      computer). I think it also has something to do with the fact that I’m old
      and had to walk uphill both ways to school in five feet of snow…

    • I think the loss of inflection is the main reason I go out of my way to be perfectly clear when writing on the web. After my experience with Rob, I realised how easy it is to have what you’ve written misinterpreted.

  2. meh i’ll be honest, i stopped caring about people’s feelings on the internet a long time ago….I’m not a mean person, i’m not out to hurt people. If you took what i said wrong and don’t talk to me about it right then, you can have your own little cry about it later.

    Man up america, your turning into a bunch of whiny lazy crybabies more and more every day.

    • That’s surprising. Over time, I’ve found myself doing the exact opposite.
      When I was young and brash, I insulted freely and cared not who was
      bothered. Mind you, I didn’t do so simply for the sake of being rude, there
      was usually some minor purpose I thought I was serving. And I’m sure
      that the anonimity on the internet gave me some freedom to do so, but
      really, I was the same way face to face.

      As time goes by, my stance on things have changed dramatically. I take
      greater care to treat all people with respect–be them local, or faceless
      projections on the internet. They all have something to contribute–even
      those young, brash types. 🙂

      • It’s not that i don’t treat people well, it’s that i can’t be bothered to tip toe around my normal speech patterns and mannerism’s while making a 10 second post on the internet.

        I take the stance that if your reading into people’s posts too much you really shouldn’t be reading posts, you’ll stress out about if Rob’s comment of “pshaw” meant he think’s im stupid or whether he’s just injecting some silly into his writing.

        It’s a direction though that our country is going, think about the super bowl yesterday, dude scores a touchdown and goes down on his knee’s with his hands raised up to the sky….he gets a penalty for improper celebration display or somesuch??? It’s the same thing, someone got upset at the celebratory craziness the other team did when they score, so now we have a rule that says you can’t do that…. you post some comments i wouldn’t give two seconds thought about, and your asked to not post anymore.

        It’s one thing to deal with comments like:
        “That’s stupid, your stupid, this blogg is stupid”
        “i hate that model it’s fugly”
        “man maybe you should burn that cause it’s terrible”

        It’s another to track and deal with posts like yours above…. I know you Rob your opinionated but your not mean, i find it hard to believe there might be other previous examples of posts where you were worse then above.

      • Oh, I’m sure if you look hard enough, you’ll find posts from my previous
        self that are outright nasty. Luckily, I used a different callsign back
        then.

        But yeah, I try not to offend with my posts, and I was a little shocked that
        anyone was bothered by them, but it happens. Good communication (on both
        parties’ parts) prevents things like that from getting out of hand. That’s
        the point I’m really trying to make.

        My next goal is to be a little better about giving criticism only when it’s
        requested. I’m pretty bad about injecting my own opinions into positions
        where they’re frankly unwelcome. We all have to have goals though, right?

      • “Good communication (on both parties’ parts) prevents things like that from getting out of hand.”

        I have to agree with that statement wholeheartedly. In hindsight, it’s easy to read those comments as light hearted but at the time, I’d walked away from various forums due to all the negative postings and various personalities that inhabit those places, into the blogosphere which was and still is a much nicer place.

        So, at the time, I (and others) perceived the tone of Rob’s negatively. At first I ignored it, until I decided that I’d had enough and asked him to stop commenting. With hindsight, I should have raised my concerns much earlier but that’s life. The issue got raised, got sorted and now we’re all good.

        Above all, I’ve learned to be more careful about what I post, to give a bit more leeway when reading others, and to raise any issues as and when they crop up. Life’s about learning from your mistakes and I’ll happily say that in this case, it was my bad.

      • Context makes a big difference as to how things are intepreted–and that
        works both ways. Of course, the way words or framed or where they appear
        change their meaning, but the frame of mind you’re in when you receive them
        makes almost as big of a difference. For instance, if I’m in a bad mood
        when I read something, I’m more likely to take it negatively.

        I’m sure these incidents were party “my bad” as well. No worries, it’s all
        water under the bridge… Thanks for your comments though, I think it helps
        to illustrate how things confrontation can lead to peacable solutions. 🙂

  3. I think the most important lesson here is that you got back to him and talked about it. Internet drama sucks the fun out of why I read blogs and I’m happy to see that you got past it.

    Me, I’m very politically incorrect. I’m opinionated and have a warp colored belt and two Ph.D.s in being me. But when I post on my blog (go read it:)) and when I comment on hobby blogs I use my polite hobby side. Our hobby is about the hobby, I don’t want to mix that with anything else.

  4. I think you left out the big thing that keeps getting you in trouble.. maybe the reason you keep having issues…

    “Humour”

    Jokes can be taken poorly, but sarcasm is especially hard to interpret. You talk about some of the ways to mitigate the problem, but adding a smiley face after a seemingly insulting comment doesn’t necessarily help.

    It may mean changing the way you speak to other people, but online, we often forget we’re even talking to people rather than posting our thoughts all over. Sarcastic comments usually aren’t helpful at all so in the interest of just being friendly, maybe best to withhold them.

    • I’m sure I’m not the only person this has happened to, though my style of
      “humor” (sans superfluous “U”) is certainly at fault (or at least
      partially). I’ve a dry wit that’s hard to catch in normal conversation
      (something I believe I mentioned in the piece), so it’s not surprising
      people could have troubles following my meaning.
      I write exactly how I talk, so what you see is what you get (sans
      inflection), but I’m sure that I crack too many jokes for my own good. It’s
      just one of those habits I’ve considered trying to stop (not that I think
      I’d be able to, mind you), but I prefer it over the alternative. I’m sure
      I could scroll back on the amount of jokes, but I dropping them altogether
      ain’t gonna happen.

      Thanks for the insight. 🙂

      • A lot of people say they write just like they talk.. which I believe is true.

        The problem is they don’t write just like they communicate. As you point out, there’s more to communicating than just talking.

  5. I must say I agree that it is very hard to make yourself 100% clear on the net. I find that I am constantly vetting every line in my head before I type to prevent a comment I think is hilarious landing me in trouble.

    Myself, I always assume people mean no harm in their comments or message, if they didn’t like the stuff they wouldn’t bother looking at it and commenting, and if they didn’t like it and still commented, they clearly have too much spair time.

    Everything in the world has to be taken with a pinch of salt, internet communication is just the same.

  6. One of my favorite ways to say “I didn’t do it” and/or “I don’t care”-

    I am not affiliated with that clown.

    Not a lot of people get it. So I give them spaghetti. And blankets.

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