Interpreting Written Communications: The 7%

Recently, Stylist Newspapers published a piece I wrote about social networking.(You can read it by clicking the link if you like, but to summarize: social networking gave us a huge support group that helped us recognize our worth as professionals after the economic crash.)

A subscriber emailed me about the article a few days ago, telling me that her experiences with professional networking groups have not been pleasant. She recently earned her nail license and has been disheartened by what she perceives to be “condescending responses” to the questions she posted. Seeking feedback, she posted images of her work for critiquing, and according to her, the group members tore her down. I referred her to several smaller professional groups that I belong to and know to be full of supportive, constructive professionals, but she urged me to write a post about handling “internet haters.”

Before I address these alleged “internet haters,” it’s important for those who feel victimized to learn how to evaluate written communications before becoming defensive. A University of Pennsylvania study reported that the majority of communication is transmitted non-verbally. 70% of communication is body language, 23% is voice tone and inflection, and only 7% of it are the words you actually speak. Written communications tend to be interpreted very differently than face-to-face interactions, which can be understandable given the lack of inflection, facial expression, and body language.

Don’t make assumptions about the way things are “said” when they’re written.

You’re only getting 7% of the message. To illustrate this, I recorded myself reading this post as if I were explaining it to someone. When you’re done reading this post, compare the impression you have of me based on the written content of this post to the impression the video gives you and note the differences.

A post is an invitation to discussion—and the purpose of discussion is to exchange ideas.

By posting, you are inviting commentary and debate. Not everyone will agree with you or approve of your viewpoint. If you can’t accept this fact, you’re better off not posting at all. A successful discussion concludes when the parties have respectfully considered each others’ opinions. The parties either agree to disagree or one person’s perspective is altered, leading to the development of a newer, better opinion on the issue being discussed. Either reject the viewpoint and retain your own or evolve with the new information you’ve gathered. If you’re posting content with the expectation that everyone should blindly agree with you, you’re setting yourself up for massive disappointment.

Are you taking suggestions or opposing viewpoints as criticisms?

Don’t interpret dissent or alternative suggestions as personal attacks or condemnations. I disagree with people often, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like them or that I’m making a negative statement about who they are. It upsets me when people make this assumption because I do try hard to communicate clearly and leave as little room for interpretation as possible.

Approach debate with a healthy attitude.
Give each commenter’s perspective consideration. You don’t have to agree, but the point of belonging to and participating in a professional networking group is to exchange ideas and learn together. There’s no room for growth in a group that does everything the same way and constantly agrees with each other.

Understand that not everything is about you.
Have you ever had a friend of yours become cold towards you without explanation, only to later find out that they falsely believed a statement you posted pertained to them? If you aren’t directly mentioned in a comment or post, shrug it off and assume it isn’t about you. Don’t even ask the poster if they’re talking about you.

Passive-aggressive communications don’t deserve acknowledgment of any kind.

If the person were that irritated with you that they felt compelled to post something about it but somehow doesn’t possess the maturity to say something directly to you, they aren’t worth your time anyways.

If someone makes a statement you require clarification on, ask them directly before you get offended. If someone has offended you, communicate that to them in no uncertain terms. Lay your cards out, people, we’re all adults here.

Generally, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between misinterpretation of a comment and comments that are outright abusive in nature. The internet does tend to be full of assholes, which I suspect is why people in general have become so defensive in their internet communications. It can be hard to tell the difference between covertly abusive comments and plain discussion.

If you’re certain you’ve come across a troll of some kind, deal with them by not dealing with them.

The internet contains a very wide variety of people—and not all of those people are nice. Nasty comments will be made by nasty people with nothing better to do than be nasty for the sake of being nasty. It can be hard, but ignore them the best you can. Like Mr. T, you should pity those fools for being such miserable, hateful bitches—right before you forget about them and their comments and move on with your day.

Keep personal insults in perspective.
The vast majority of commenters in professional networking groups won’t know you personally, so why take offense to any personal commentary they make? It’s unlikely that they’re informed enough about you to make an educated judgment either way, so taking anything they say about you or your character to heart is ridiculous. Remember, these people mean absolutely nothing to you. They are strangers located all around the country. Their opinion of you or your techniques won’t affect you or your life in the least.

If you’re capable of effectively excommunicating someone from your life by shutting down your computer, they’re not important.

Never give anyone that you can turn off with the push of a button that kind of power over you or your sense of self-worth.

Never engage.
Trolls love to bait people. Nothing makes them happier than when they’ve successfully snared someone. They want you to react with hostility. They want you to fight them. Don’t fall into that trap.

When a debate devolves into personal insults, that’s your cue to tactfully excuse yourself from the conversation.

At that point, you’re no longer participating in an adult discussion, so leave the children behind. No amount of carefully-crafted responses will salvage the situation. Don’t waste your time. In those situations, it’s far better to remain silent. Nothing pisses a troll off more than a person who walks away with their dignity intact.

Let them look like the infantile asshole. You have better things to do.


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