Reading Too Much Into It

(Please be forewarned; there’s a bit of a rant in this post.)

The Philippines is the text messaging capital of Asia, and a lot of vital information useful for the flow of business and commerce passes through those SMS gates. Even more so, a lot of person-to-person interaction occurs in those 160 characters.

What’s missing in texting is nonverbal communication — the tone of voice, the look in a person’s eye, facial expression, body language. I’m sure expats who live in the Philippines will agree that this is a culture with an indirect way of talking. Around here, it’s not what you have to say, but how you say it, that matters to people. Filipinos are an emotional lot, too; if you can rouse emotions, even if what you say is unimportant people will remember you for how you made them feel. Because smileys are so inadequate at getting that sort of information through, people reading text messages just fill in the blanks.

Imagine the many ways that can go wrong.

Imagine a corporate setting when there is a snafu. Person A, upset, sends a text to Person B trying to get to the root of the problem. B construes it as being angry and directed at him. (B has been involved in previous snafus.) Problem is resolved when B explains what happened to A, yes? B also tells A to be careful with his tone — despite there actually being no vocal tone to a text message.

Unfortunately, culture plays deeper into it. In an informal setting, B discusses A’s behavior with C and D, interpreting it as rude. C and D, who do not normally interact with A anyway, discuss this with E and F and G and so on. Notice that poor A has no idea what is going on, and that the entire alphabet has started to label A as an A-hole.

So when A gets in touch with L regarding a collaboration L is backing out of, and texts something without smileys, L is more likely to read this as having an aggressive tone. L tells A to be careful with his tone, once again, and warns A that other people have noticed this. “You have a point, but you are rough and rude in speech.” All that reading from a text message, despite A not even being physically present to be rough and rude in actual speech.

How could A have phrased his text messages better? Should he maybe have written in textese (“hellur powh”) so that there would be less emotional impact to his words than fully-spelled out direct questions?

The lesson to be learned here is not to conduct serious discussions over text media. (In that case, even email is suspect.) Never, if you want people to know exactly what you mean by how you are saying it. So if they say you are an A-hole, at least you know you really are one, rather than just being thought to be one. At least you can insult them deliberately rather than unintentionally.

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3 thoughts on “Reading Too Much Into It

  • October 16, 2009 at 7:04 pm
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    B and L projected their guilt over their own inadequacy onto A's texts, so they read the texts as accusatory. A learned English from Americans and Englishmen, so he tends to speak more directly than comfortable for most Filipinos.

    If I catch you on YM, I'll show you the messages word-for-word.

    Reply
  • October 17, 2009 at 1:15 am
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    Text communication, be it SMS or email, remains essential in business. It serves as reliable documentation, a point of reference so to speak and if properly utilized, a productivity tool as well.

    I would suppose that another lesson we can learn here is being vigilant with how we phrase things. We need to constantly take into consideration text based communication is limited and we need to compensate for those limitations as best we can. A smiley consists of only 2 smileys but can relevantly change the tone of a message. 🙂

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