Tone is more important than the words you use, until all you have is words. On the web, we’ve skirted tone for a long while with emoticons. :) Thankfully, the wide adoption of Emoji is rescuing us from writing obscure combinations of syntactically invalid punctuation, and I think that’s a good thing.

If you read as much as I do, then you already know words like “just” & “that” unintentionally discredit your ideas and pitches; you know body language & confidence will win people over more than a lexicon of jargon; you know how hard it is to put biases aside and trust the data.

The data about written communication, is that we all suck at it.

Everyone, across the board, at both reading & writing, sucks at it, including me. I spend a lot of time, most of my professional career, not just thinking about social software, but how to improve both the value and the return-on-investment of the ways people socialize online. I think the answer, for me, is etiquette.

Different groups of people, teams, factions, etc… have an established rapport. They found communication styles & mechanisms that work well enough for them to have considered that problem solved-enough, so they can move onto solving bigger problems. When these patterns deviate outside of traditional or societal norms, is when it becomes increasingly difficult to break into those groups.

On a large scale, I can’t break into the Japanese WordPress User Group because I don’t speak a lick of Japanese. On a smaller scale, I can’t help my village planning commission make decisions because I don’t know any of the ordinances. At home, I can’t tell what Paul the dog is really thinking because he only understands a few dozen words and I don’t speak dog very well.

For teams of humans, working together to address intersecting needs, we’ve worked for thousands of years to lower the barrier of entry into these groups. Grunts turned into syllables, words, phrases, and sentences. We introduced syntactical structure to convey pauses, stops, and rests. But when the web exploded, we froze almost all written language because it’s now the web’s biggest dependency. We can’t delete “Q” from the English language entirely because wp_enqueue_script wouldn’t work anymore.

All of this is to say, that we need to learn how to do better with what we have today, because there won’t be much new for the rest of our lives when it comes to written communication. To do that, means a few different things…

  • Lurk. We all need to read, listen, & absorb. This includes understanding the general vibe of who is all involved, and deciding if it’s compatible with you.
  • Respect. Groups of people have established processes. No one can change these easily, especially someone new & full of enthusiasm to rock everyone’s worlds.
  • Decide. You need to choose where you think you fall in the pecking order, and make no mistake, there is a pecking order. Even flat organizations have a hidden social hierarchy. Understanding Social Dominance Theory will help you, here.
  • Introduce. Once you have enough data from lurking, you can slowly start to apply what you’ve learned. Sometimes this means humor, sometimes strictly business, or other times it means only lurking and not getting involved at all.
  • Pace. Now that you understand the social dynamic, and have decided where you think you belong in the group, it’s time to try to keep the pace. Traditionally, this is called “fitting in” but it’s important to earning the trust of your new acquaintances.
  • Pass/fail. You’ll know pretty quickly whether any of your above efforts have resonated positively or negatively, and each interaction will echo through-out the group. Someone will mention you, one way or the other.
  • Stay/bail. The level of joy you receive from any group of people should be the underlying motivator for driving your decision to stay or leave. If it’s rewarding, healthy, and fun, then stay. If it’s causing harm to yourself or others, my advice would be to consider anything else.

“Us vs. Them” is a real feeling, because we are – all of us – are constantly at odds with each other. In our base programming, we are animals, sizing each other up, and fighting for scraps. Sure; we are mostly domesticated animals, but during times of distress or high-anxiety, you can watch people become animals & treat other people that way too, and triggers could literally be anything from allergies to relationship issues to PTSD and on…

When it comes to WordPress’s leadership, or BuddyPress/bbPress, or really anything else, these same rules apply, but increasingly so because almost all of our communication is non-verbal. This means a million people may read your words and hear kindness in your written voice, but the one person you want to hear kindness may only hear rage, for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with anything you did or did not do. Phew!

My proposed solution, is etiquette. More pleases, more thank-you’s, more awareness of who is involved in what, who is in charge of what, who has earned what, and who the who’s are and what they want to be when they grow up. This means a base-level respect for everyone, regardless of your history or lack-there-of. It means reading your words back to yourself and trying to convey a smile without using :) or 😀.

Ultimately, it means being patient, and taking the time to craft your words so they will sound like a well-intentioned contribution to your audience.

For slowing down, I’ll recommend you try switching your keyboard layout. In 2010, I switched to Dvorak – when my 100wpm plummeted to 20, those 20 words needed to matter most. Twitter’s 140 character limit maybe helps with being succinct, but I don’t know that length is as important as word-choice and knowing your audience.

Lastly, it helps to know yourself, and have a relatively clear idea of who the people around you think that you are, and how similar that is to who you think you are. If people think you’re always goofy, and you think you have something serious to offer, changing that perception is not going to be easy, and it may take a number of years to swing people around to accepting your style & approach for what it is.

I think if everyone has a bit more patience with each other, and we all take the time to consider the ripples we leave in people’s lives, we can communicate with written words in ways that don’t sink ships or hurt feelings. <3


About the Author

I help build WordPress, BuddyPress, bbPress, EDD, Sugar Calendar, and a bunch of other super neat stuff.

5 comments on “Tone

  • ServerPress Marc August 23, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Great post, JJJ. I spend a lot of time studying and “reading between the lines” of written communication. It’s an important skill in which we, as a society, could all do better. I’m sure I’ll refer back to this post on more than one occasion.

  • sarkarinaukar August 24, 2016 at 3:49 am

    It certainly takes a lot of courage to communicate efficiently on the web and JJJ you’ve pointed it out well that even if 1 person takes it the wrong way or the way it wasn’t intended, it can defeat the purpose! Especially if these are social media influencers and they take their interpretation to make fun of your communication. Well, then that is when the proverbial sh*t hits the social media fan. We’ve an unnecessary waste of time, mostly accompanied by change in the perception people have about us.

    Btw, Dvorak seems to be a nice idea to try, you’ve mentioned this before, perhaps… has my attention.

  • itchybrain August 24, 2016 at 5:51 am

    Thanks JJJ, I really enjoyed reading your writing…I found your angles and ways of conveying ideas very refreshing—I kept wanting to read more, so I did! Thank you JJJ, much appreciated.
    cheers
    Darryl

  • Ramkumar Yaragarla September 18, 2016 at 8:53 am

    JJJ, You have written your thoughts. Nice. Everyone has their own style of writing. When you write something, it tells about you. Who you are, they way you think, your education and how organised you are. True. We have to maintain the basic etiquette. Our writing could be authentic but better to keep it positive with good morals and values. It influences people and their minds. Cheers.

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