We are all exposed to so much information these days that it is tempting to skim read emails, blogs or newsletters in the same way as a fast-moving Twitter stream – a vain attempt to take in as much information as quickly as possible.
Reading and writing information online can be fraught, particularly for non-native English speakers like me. But even native speakers are at risk of causing misunderstandings, by inadvertently misreading the written word in front of their eyes.
Online communication is confusing
We may see two messages – the message that is conveyed by the words you read, and the unwritten message, or meaning of what’s potentially being said between the lines.
English is a very subtle language where a simple sentence such as “They will never agree to that“ can mean lots of different things depending on whether you stress the word ‘they’, ‘never’ ‘agree’ or ‘that’!
So, when writing you may mean one thing but your reader may read another into it.
For example as a German speaker and otherwise confident writer (and reader) of English, I don’t find it easy to understand emotions in written communications, such as when someone is subtly trying to hint they are angry or sad without explicitly using the words to say so.
My personal preference would be to actually say that I am angry or sad but unless you come from a culture or work in an environment, where direct communication like this is the norm, it is better to be a little less direct and explicit.
I therefore rely on emoticons such as 🙂 to show that what I am saying is to be seen as a light-hearted rather than serious remark. But some people ignore these – perhaps they don’t understand them, find them irritating, or have a preference for a more formal writing style such as in letters.
One way to avoid misunderstandings in business communication is to reserve emails and social media updates mostly for facts and leave anything else to be discussed in person where both parties can clarify and ask questions to avoid misunderstandings, wrong assumptions or judgments.
If ever you have received an irate blog comment or email because something you said has been misunderstood, and you are finding yourself having to clarify, you know how confusing and frustrating this can be for both parties.
Worse still, what if the receiver goes quiet and doesn’t reply because for them – perhaps for cultural or personal reasons – it is not the right thing to do?
So what can you do?
Next time you are skim reading a blog, email or an online update and think the information is crystal clear, think again… or read again.
And if you are not sure about something (and it is important for you to get the meaning right) simply ask the question….’Can I clarify that I have understood XYZ please’ before replying with potential accusations or assumptions.
And when you know somebody it’s probably best anyway to pick up the phone to ask a question.
If you are the writer, don’t just assume that your message is clear and will be easily understood. Or, if you don’t receive any comment or replies, that your reader is purposely ignoring you.
Let’s face it … your blog, update or email may not have been read yet because the reader is simply too busy. What is a priority for you may not be a priority for them!
And if that’s not the case and for whatever reason you’ve upset someone, you can count yourself lucky if they tell you. Then, perhaps, the only way to move on from this is by apologising or contacting them directly and keeping the communication as open as possible.
I’d love to read your tips or hear more about your experiences with online communication. Why not share them below.
About the author: Ute Wieczorek-King is a UK-based German mentor and blogger who helps passionate midlife women to stay focused, work smarter and stand out from the crowd. If you’d like to take your small venture from good to great, why not download Ute’s free “Passion to Profit” ebook.
PS. The above is an updated post – the original was first published in 2011.