We barely manage to make sense of each other’s words in person, with all the intonation and facial expressions and gestures and so on — and even with all that in place it's impossible to avoid misunderstandings. Texting makes everything even more difficult.
Even the most tiny, seemingly simple things like smileys can be interpreted differently. Gretchen McCulloch, an internet linguist and the author of “Because Internet,” made a poll asking “What does :P mean to you?” Of the more than 1,100 people who responded, 66% said the tongue-out emoticon was flirtatious or cutesy, 8% said it conveyed exasperation, and 20% said it checks both boxes.
Texting at work is a weird setting where we run into a conflict between formal and informal writing. On top of style clashes, there's another problem: misunderstandings, which are much more likely to happen in text. What we want to say, what we end up saying, what the other person ends up reading, and what they will make of it are all very different things. There's always missing/confusing context (Do you mean this week's report or that of last week?), lack of intonation (Yes.), knowledge gaps (Sorry what's 2FA?), vocabulary mismatch (Full stops? Do you mean periods?), and so on.
And on top of clash of styles, you've got culture clashes. The more we work with people from other cultures in far-flung locations, the less we pick up on subtle meaning and the more we fall victim to misunderstanding and inefficiency. Much of the world's communication happens in English, which means many people are communicating in their non-native language. The newly evolved internet language is a (more) common tongue, but there are still tonality and formalities that create conflict across cultures.
How can you read a person’s meaning when it’s sent over email or via Slack? Online, not only do we lack access to implicit cues like body language, but recent research even emojis can get lost in translation.
So, what can we do about it? How can we get better at texting?
The unavoidable conclusion is that in work context, texting is a skill, much like any other soft skill. A wild idea: It needs to be developed by anyone who wants to work remotely, and it needs to be considered by companies during the interview process.
Ten years ago that would sound baffling to say the least. M.S. in Texting?! But today… Welcome to the new normal.