Be VERY Careful Using Social Media

After being the recipient of tweets, email, comments under blog posts, and other online communications that miss-the-mark, I’m constantly struck by how often I take things the wrong way and end up calling someone to ensure I didn’t misconstrue what they were intending to say and to gain a better understanding of the point they were trying to get across.

This sort of miscommunication is becoming more problematic…not less…especially as real-time communications occur with services like Twitter. Add to that a limit in the number of characters these services allow us to use and you can see how challenging it is to convey any kind of deep meaning using real-time communications.

My son had an assignment for English class that had the following thought provoking table showing how easy it is to make a statement and have it come across COMPLETELY WRONG depending upon the emphasis of one specific word within that statement. You’ve probably seen this sort of stuff before, but it never hurts to be reminded how ONE WORD can completely change the context of your communication.

Think about this the next time you’re ready to click “send” on that tweet.

WHAT I SAID WHAT I MEANT
I didn’t say she stole my money Someone else said it
I didn’t say she stole my money I didn’t say it
I didn’t say she stole my money I only implied it
I didn’t say she stole my money I said someone did, not necessarily her
I didn’t say she stole my money
I considered it borrowed, even though she didn’t ask
I didn’t say she stole my money Only that she stole money
I didn’t say she stole my money She stole stuff which cost me money to replace
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4 Comments

  1. Paul Jinks on March 11, 2010 at 2:31 am

    Thanks Steve

    It’s useful to be reminded of how the quick, informal (i.e. in some respects speech-like) text communication of the internet differs from speech: you cannot finesse meaning with intonation, stress, facial expression, gestures or other contextual cues. Your recipient may read your words long after the spontaneity of your post has faded. it can be viewed and reviewed time and again – and by the whole interweb. :-O

    I think this matters greatly, particularly in communication for business and education and with people we don’t know well and/or whose first language isn’t English.

    For the record, this is known as contrastive stress and is definitely best avoided in written text, or at least used with caution. The use of italics/ the em tag to indicate contrastive stress can be at best ambigous



  2. Steve Borsch on March 11, 2010 at 6:41 am

    When I was an executive at a software company, several other execs would hold me up for collegial ridicule for my “Ted Kaczynski manifesto” emails. Usually long, quite detailed, and admittedly challenging to carve out the time to read, my boss finally came to my defense in a meeting by saying:

    “Yes they’re long but he can talk to all of us at once and when you’re done reading it, you *clearly* understand his arguments, right?” Everyone agreed.

    The challenge is balancing clear messages with a clarity of intent in a day when few of us can ask our readers, audience, or “followers” to invest the time to get a holistic view of what one is trying to communicate.

    Thanks for the very thoughtful comment Paul.



  3. Grant Stringer on October 22, 2010 at 6:53 am

    I must be careful how I say this
    I have encountered this problem and miscommunication on many occasions – With some people you can spell things out soooo clearly but they still get the wrong end of the stick.
    That saying ” …the meaning of the communication is the response you get ” drives me wild in those situations. Linguistics and semantics have probably been responsible for more war and arguments than we could ever imagine!
    Keep open channels of communication at all times – ye right!
    Nice post btw – and point taken.



  4. Steve Borsch on October 22, 2010 at 7:16 am

    Thanks Grant.

    An old mentor of mine taught me something absolutely invaluable…especially when it comes to communicating with folks that worked for me in various past adventures. After carefully and clearly explaining something to someone (especially if it was tough, critical feedback) he would ALWAYS ask them to do one thing:

    “OK…what did you hear me say? Can you tell me what you heard me say so we can make certain we’re on the same page?”

    I can’t tell you how many times I’d observe people respond by completely and totally missing the essence of what he was trying to get across!

    Using this approach has done so much for me as a leader, a coach, a mentor and a parent. It allows people to go back-n-forth and through successive iterations of communicating about a topic, subject, argument or issue debate until there is either agreement or an agreement to disagree.

    Unfortunately the acceleration in our always-on, always-connected, constant attention-shifting lifestyle with digital communications means that it’s getting harder, rather than easier, to effectively communicate instead of just communicating more.

    Thanks for reading.



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