This is the question: How do you communicate differently online than in person, if at all? How do you communicate emotion and intent in a purely written medium?
Growing up I had pen pals. Remember those? I loved getting mail from other parts of the country and all over the world. I actually still have some of the last letters I got with friendship books that I never sent on. I’ve also saved many of the letters I got in the past from different countries. I did have the opportunity when in high school to actually meet a couple of the more local pen pals I had. It was then that I learned my first lesson in written vs. one-on-one communication: by writing we can project ourselves the way we want to be seen and at the same time be misunderstood, and in ways we wouldn’t imagine. Fast forward many years later. I had a part-time job and sent an email in response to someone’s question. The next thing I know my now former supervisor was complaining that they received thirty phone calls about this email that I had only sent to two people. I knew immediately who had forwarded the email. It was a get back. I printed off and saved that email I sent. Someday I will publish the contents and ask everybody what the big deal was. All I did was mention what I was going to be doing on a particular day. Fast forward again to this past year and week. This past year I’ve been using texts to communicate with a wider variety of people after getting yelled at that I interrupted them with phone calls. Finally one person called me back and said please call, the phone calls are faster. The icing on the cake was this past week when I received a nasty email telling me what I should be doing, in that person’s opinion, calling me particular names, and basically just telling me to go to hell. It was in response to something I had said earlier in the day to a third party, not even the person emailing me.
We do communicate differently on-line, with texts, and through writing. The mantra of literature is that the same story is also interpreted by the individual reading it and thereby the meaning changes every time. The same goes for on-line and texting. I don’t know what the person reading what I’m writing is thinking. I can’t see their face, watch their expressions, or even hear their voice. Being careful and watching your words is the key, not only for spoken, but more so for writing. I know when I write something it can be interpreted any way the reader wants it to be. The best advice I ever got about writing was to read what you write like your enemies are reading it, and that advice only came in the last couple of months.
As far as communicating emotion, we can write using adjectives and adverbs that describe emotion, but looking at the classic writers and how they convey emotion, it is by setting up the scene and describing the overall physical reaction to the emotion.
Here is how I would describe what happened when I got the email this past week, and it was a similar reaction to when I was called into my supervisor’s office many years ago:
Angela sat in front of her laptop at her dining room table, slowly going through her emails, one-by-one. The usual daily news articles and alerts came through. By happenstance, as she went from one email to the next, another email popped up. The opening line immediately caught her attention: “I think you should….” . By the time she was done reading it, she could feel her ears burning and anger seeping up through her neck. The knee jerk reaction urge to angrily write back was there, to post it on-line, but she restrained herself. This had been done to her before. Now she knew she would just have to wait and the opportunity to respond in the correct way, even if it meant fighting fire with fire, would come. Angela sucked in a deep breath and instead let the tears come, as she knew they would. She had never done anything to this person, yet this person was continually critical of what Angela had done and sometimes said. This email now just proved it and finally gave Angela something in writing.
(C) 2013, Angela Capinera