Communicating nowadays is like tiptoeing through a minefield.
Words have been the chief medium of communication since shortly after our ancestors crawled out of the primordial ooze. We’ve witnessed a revolution in the last decade in how those words are delivered, and email, text, and social media have changed the way humans interact.
These new forms are:
- Instantaneous: Our phones and computers are constantly beeping for attention. We are expected to reply to messages immediately, so taking time to carefully craft a response is a luxury. In addition to editing our own words, we have to watch out for auto correct. This feature can change the message without our even noticing before our flying fingers press “send.”
- Informal: You would never start a formal business letter without the salutation, “Dear So-and-So.” Now you wouldn’t begin an email with the word “Dear” unless you were writing to your great aunt. This change has evolved organically to the point where the traditional greeting sounds strange, even in a business email.
- Impossible…to tell subtext or voice: We’ve lost the verbal and visual clues we once got over the phone or in face-to-face meetings, and many of the old rules for written communication have gone out the window.
The last point is especially troubling, and an entirely new sub-language has arisen to compensate. It is composed of exclamation points, smiley faces, winking faces, JKs, LOLs and the like. Using these sub-textual symbols can help to add voice, but the downside is that they have become so common some people can’t deliver a line without one. Twenty-somethings who have grown up with the new media are both its masters and the worst offenders when it comes to symbol overload.
Witness the exclamation point.
The ex-point used to be merely one of many arrows in our punctuation mark quiver, valued no more and no less than its brethren. It was reserved for situations marked by excitement or enthusiasm – things that were worthy of being, well, exclaimed about. Now it is just a tall period.
One ex-point means nothing. Like an addict who needs more and more of a drug to get the same high, it now takes 2 to signify even mild enthusiasm, and you’d better be laying down at least 3 of them if you want to convey real excitement. Where will it end?
I refuse to give in to ex-point tyranny. I use them consciously and only when excitement is warranted. By not following the herd on this issue, however, my comments may look dull, sullen, or even angry. I might think I am taking the grammatical high ground, but without sub-textual symbols to add voice I stand a very real chance of being misunderstood. That’s exactly what happened recently.
One of my young relatives is an ex-point junkie. Her every post is so loaded with them, as well as LOLs and smiley faces, that if Facebook charged per special character she would be flat broke. She recently posted that she had finished watching an entire 8 seasons of a TV show back to back, and was looking for something new to do. I commented, “Sweetie, if you’re watching 8 hours of reruns at a sitting, it’s time to get a hobby.” I thought she knew me well enough to know I was kidding. Apparently not. Her reply was, “I have lots of hobbies. I just like to watch TV to unwind.”
Note the total absence of LOLs and exclamation points in her reply. By using plain, old periods instead of the ex-points that have become the norm for her every comment, she was sending me a message and I heard it loud and clear; she was not amused. In hindsight, I should have said: “Sweetie, LOL, if you’re watching 8 hours (insert goofy face) of old reruns LOL at a sitting :) it’s time to get a hobby !!! JK LOL winky winky LMAO ;) ”
Since it was too late to retract my comment, I moved swiftly to recover lost ground by replying, “Me too, ha ha!!! I watch way too much, even though I know I shouldn’t. LOL!! :) ” Things between us are OK, but it was a close call.
Now that most business communication is conducted via email, these sub-textual symbols have crept in there, as well. The rules have relaxed in this area, but they have not changed as much as some might think. Excessive ex-points and LOLs do not belong in business emails. The writer who misuses them does so at the risk of not being taken seriously and, like it or not, this is especially true for young women.
Young people need to remember that an LOL or smiley face is neither required nor recommended for every situation. By the same token, I need to lighten up and stop hoarding ex-points like they were gold. I also need to stop saying “young people” because it makes me sound like Methuselah.
If we all use sub-textual symbols thoughtfully, we can meet somewhere on the middle ground and communicate without our words blowing up in our faces.