Meaning is in the eye of the beholder

oh the news will travel slowly

over broken glass

and I’ll bet you heard that story

under the overpass

— Midnight Oil, Under the Overpass

The world is curiously resistant to the idea that the medium of communication makes a crucial difference to how it is received. It is very tempting to send email when dealing with emotionally fraught subjects. Far easier to type an email behind the safety of your computer than to look someone in the eye, or even hear their voice, when you tell them something they don’t want to hear.

Sending an email means you don’t have to deal with any reaction – at least not immediately. When the reaction does come, it is in text, stripped of the signs of stress and trauma that we are pretty good at recognising in faces and voices. It can depersonalise the whole experience, which is great if you don’t want to deal with the consequences of what you have to say.

Therein lies the problem, of course. Email can be a godsend when you have to announce something traumatic to the world – like a miscarriage – and you don’t want to go through the same painful conversation a hundred times over. For more personal, one-on-one conversations, though, it is stripped of all the emotional nuance and meaning that our bodies convey (even over the phone), and a single sentence can have 15 different interpretations. Meaning is suddenly in the eye of the beholder.

I recently attended a professional development session on the Autism Spectrum, and the presenter made the point that people with autism struggle with those subtle nuances that can change the meaning of a sentence. Meaning can alter dramatically based on intonation and emphasis. Take this sentence, for example: “I didn’t say she wasn’t coming.” Read it out loud, and put the stress on different words in turn. eg “I didn’t say she wasn’t coming.” “I didn’t say she wasn’t coming.” “I didn’t say she wasn’t coming.” “I didn’t say she wasn’t coming.” etc. Each sentence has an entirely different meaning. People with autism find those differences difficult, if not impossible, to identify.

In a sense, email makes us all autistic. The meaning stuffed into an email by its author can warp into something entirely different in the mind of the reader. Depending on mood, expectations, and even personality, different people will put those emphases on different words, and extract entirely different meanings from a single email. Indeed, the same person may read an identical email differently depending on the kind of day he or she is having (I can personally attest to this).

Got no time to weep for something

you may never get back

if you’re feeling cold and lonely

under the overpass

Email allows us to get everything out without interruption, but it deprives us of those cues in our listener that warn us to change our tune, moderate our tone, or explain a point. It allows tension to build like a pressure cooker missing its escape valve.

Like a game of chinese whispers, email can warp your message beyond recognition. It’s a way of talking to people without having to face them, but so much is lost in the process that the ultimate pain can be magnified out of all proportion. Far better to have that conversation in person, scary though it may be, and sort it out face to face.

I’ve seen many time bombs built and armed via email, and nearly as many defused by a two minute conversation. Email is a dangerous weapon. Use it wisely.

3 thoughts on “Meaning is in the eye of the beholder

  1. I couldn’t agree more, I’ve known more than one person who felt hurt by something that was said in an email, or on Twitter, or Facebook, that simply wasn’t what the person who wrote it intended.
    Also, I’ve seen people with blogs be very irresponsible with what they write. (I’m not talking about you! I promise.)
    Bloggers often don’t understand how much you can hurt someone’s reputation, or how something they say can be misinterpreted. They are not responsible with their writing. Once you put it out there, you can’t take it back.

    This was very interesting about how Autistic people can’t understand the nuances of speech. I’m hearing impaired, and I know that facial clues are so very important for me to understand what someone is saying. Or how they gesture. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to understand someone if I couldn’t pick up on those clues.

    I find I miss face to face conversations a lot. I don’t talk on the phone very well, so I communicate on the computer more than I’d like. But, a good ole chat with a friend, can not be substituted.

  2. Joe

    In defense of using email for sensitive topics … via email you can spend time to recheck content, edit for coherence, and you can retract things that you blurted onto the keyboard (before sending anyway) which you can’t do in face to face conversations. (With some people, anyway.)

    And depending on the recipient you may be granting them time to digest the whole before responding. I know people who prefer to take hot topics via email precisely because they recognise they can be a bit reactive in face to face conversations.

    But in general I prefer nutting things out face to face, for the reasons you highlight so eloquently. Indeed I refuse to have a Facebook partly for the reason of wanting to keep life communication live.

  3. I find this with blogging too. Often I just give up with returning comments when clearly I’m being misunderstood – there are cultural differences in using words like ‘see’ which I use a lot to mean ‘understand’ and so on, and things which could be explained quickly and more eloquently through body-language are left half said.
    Electronic communication is great and it is limited.

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