Have you ever called a company for help with a problem, only to be greeted by a less than happy, less than helpful individual on the other end of the line? This in turn throws your mood into a downward spiral, and so it goes, perhaps ruining your day.  When this happens, you need to step back, marvel at the lack of professionalism, but also marvel at the humanity – that is a human being, and we do not know what kind of day they may be having, so don’t take it personally, just reconsider your reaction.  This happens all the time, and also in the world of electronic communications.

Since the early 1980s I have been teaching “newbies” how to use electronic communication (I started getting paid for it in 1986). Whether it was a Bulletin Board System, Compuserve, or another source where you could post and respond to messages, I have been warning my clients about the sterility of electronic communication.  The lack of tone and inflection in email has always been what I lecture the hardest about. 

The tendency to assume we know the tone or “assign” a tone to a communication with no intonation, intended or not, is human nature, and it happens every day on the phone.  We assign our own emotions to what we read, and often this can be the beginning of a very ugly situation.

I recommend a few basic rules for those that are not as used to electronic communication (including but not limited to: email, text messages, blog posts, tweets, facebook status, linked-in updates, and anything related), and even for those seasoned pros, always better to be safe than to apologize later:

  1. Mood:  What kind of mood are you in as you read something?  If you are not in a good mood, try to keep that front of mind as you interact with others.  It will come through in your messages.
  2. Tone.  Be careful of your tone, and how you read the tone of others.
  3. Personality. Don’t assume to know someone’s personality based on brief electronic interactions, and therefore assume you know what they mean, or how they intend to say something.
  4. 24 Minute Rule – it used to be 24 hours, but these days life is far too fast paced and immediate. Stop and think before you send a message you have written from an emotional extreme.  Wait 24 minutes minimum, then review and reconsider whether you want to send it.
  5. “On Second Thought” If you even have to think twice about sending something, then you should not send it. See rule 4.

A misunderstanding that grows from a simple message can be like a cancer.  Trying hard to prevent that from happening in the first place is well worth the effort.  It is one of the reasons I think people overuse emoticons, those cute little smilies.

The smilie adds the tone, or can hint at the intonation and inflection of a statement or message.  I probably overuse them, but would much rather overcompensate than try to pick up the pieces of a recently established friendship.  Meeting people in this day and age is simple, building solid trusting relationships is not as simple.  You only have one shot to make a first impression, make sure it is a positive one.

How do you prevent yourself from making bad communication choices? Do you overuse smilies? Do you wait and send later? Do you just ignore it all?