Understanding the Written Utterance

Now that we’ve gone virtual, we are finding that the written word has taken the place of what I call water cooler conversations. And we are encountering a major gap in communication because of it.

In the past, we’d talk to each other in the kitchen, whether during making our espressos and lattes, heating something in the microwave, or just conversing around the table. A lot of information was conveyed to each other in these informal communication moments. These weren’t prepared speeches where the speaker’s choice of terminology and body language were formalized by design. Informal communications are more raw, off-the-cuff, stream of consciousness. They are more utterances than paragraphical streams of thought.

  • Hey
  • How’s it going?
  • Which Python Library are you working with on that new project?

Three utterances from the same person. Three intentions (hey = I want your attention; how’s it going = I want to ask you a question, so I need to judge your desire to speak; which Python… = the real idea I want to convey). It just took me longer to write the explanation of that than it did for the two people in the conversation to understand everything because they could see each other.

Because of that, you had to get to know the person speaking so that you didn’t receive the message in the wrong way. You got to know when someone was being wry, sarcastic, funny, or even sad by their expressions or their body language. One of our engineers, P as we call him, speaks very little in terms of words coming out of his mouth, but volumes in terms of differences of expression and tone when speaking them.

Basic tones of voice in written utterances

I wrote the above using the term utterance instead of sentence or paragraph because the primary mode of informal communication has now moved into the realm of texting (texts, tweets, slack messages), which means whole paragraphs are out of the question. Long sentences are also not very commonplace. Short, staccato, utterances have become the norm.

I don’t think there’s a person who’s texted anything in the last five years that doesn’t know ALL CAPS is the equivalent of shouting. It began as a simple form of emphasis and has taken on the meaning of shouting as one form of emphasis, because we have evolved other forms, as well.

Another form of emphasis is repeatingggg letterrrrsss, the written equivalent of drawing out the words.

A form I’m just becoming familiar with is people micro-tagging their sentences, as if they were writing code. I got this one the other day:

    “I had the meeting with John. <sarcasm>I think he got the point you were trying to make.</sarcasm> He’s on our side now.”

I thought it was brilliant! I shared it with a linguist friend of mine who then came back and said that yes, people are doing it, and even shorting it to a form not unlike annotating code where they send things like “The great Cheetoh is yet again putting his foot in his mouth/rant”.

I’m sure there are others. If you would like to contribute to my lexicon of text-tones, please email me HERE.

Interpreting tone in written utterances

The above was how to add tone to your written utterances. I’m also learning that we, collectively, have to do work in interpreting tone in those utterances, especially if the writer didn’t add any forms of emphasis.

Start with your own biases when you read other’s writing. I’ve been in a place wherein I’ve sent the same message to several people — and had multiple reactions to it. Some thought I was just being me, short and to the point in texting. Others thought I was being overly blunt and rude. Same text, different bias on the reader’s part.

Assume good intentions unless notified otherwise. This is sort of an extension to the bias part above. In general, utterances are short and blunt. If the text doesn’t explicitly impart anger, sarcasm, etc., start by assuming the author is just being matter of fact.

Ask if you aren’t sure. If you are unclear about the tone or intent of an utterance, just ask. Seriously. Here’s a short conversation that happened the other day where the receiver should have asked up front, what the meaning was:

“The PR will happen today, yes?”
“*Before the end of the day. It isn’t the end of the day.*”
“Don’t get snippy, I was just asking.”
“*Not being snippy - responding while on a conference call with 8 other people*”

Eventually we’ll all learn to use, and respond to, emotions in written utterances. Until then it will need to be a healthy give and take.

Dorian Cougias