Content or Tone?

Intergenerational Communications is a long way of saying that the young’uns and their elders aren’t clear with each other when they talk and write.  And that is often a problem.  For example, I find that when I bring up the subject of three ring binders–my favorite method of organizing all the important stuff I can find on a subject–I can feel the group eye-roll working it’s way forward at the table.  And yet, I know I am not alone among the boomers who love the smell of school supplies on a fall morning, and the romance of knowing that your binder holds the key to an A on that term paper.  I say binder, you say Outlook folder.  I tell the Konica to print, collate, and hole punch.  You save to the L Drive, Basecamp, or google Docs.  But it isn’t the only thing that separates our sensibilities.

I don’t know if Facebook released our inhibitions about what we share.  I don’t know if it is the casual tone with which we tweet or comment scathing (though perhaps earned) remarks about our politicians, celebrities, or former third grade bullies.  Or our siblings.  And I don’t know if getting back in touch with old (old!) friends and frenemies returned us to a wilder time or self.  But sometimes it isn’t how you say it, but what you choose to say.

Let’s start here.  What’s really in your head need not come out of your keyboard, pen, pencil, crayon, Sharpie, or brush.  And, if I may, this means you, whether you are twenty-five, thirty-eight, fifty-two, sixty, or beyond.

We talk, all of us, about tone.  I read a wonderful article on The Muse this morning about the manner in which the use of emoticons and emoji diminish our credibility in the workplace.  However, those of us who check all grammar, spelling, word choice, clarity, thoroughness, and so on–because Mrs. Barone from 11th Grade AP English is standing right behind us–all add that smiley face because we know that somehow our compulsive composition comes through as smug, competitive, willful, defensive, or worse.  So we try to neutralize the tone of an email instead of having an in person conversation–the more suitable (and far less convenient) communication channel.

So when you talk, whatever the content, it’s an exchange–I say this, you respond.  Then I listen to you, and that determines what I say next, and so on.  For me, then, what I have to communicate unfolds, and the tone is necessarily one of exploration and collaboration, under the best of circumstances.  Arguments are different, of course (and having those by email or FB or some other platform is unwise).  But either way, the content you offer is guided by how you experience my reactions when you mobilize it.  If you go over the top of my tolerance, I will usually communicate that gently and according to rules of etiquette.

You can’t get there in digital formats. If you have to work really hard on the tone of an email, it is very likely a content problem.  Tone shines right on through and should not be used in an attempt to conceal what you really think.  Emoji (or is it emojis?) don’t help; they make the problem worse.  When you have to try that hard to make the recipient think you aren’t saying what you actually set out to say, you make it much much worse.  The conversation that should replace it begins something like this:

“Forgive me for bringing up what may be a rough spot.  Can we talk about binders?”  Or something like that.  It may not be binders, and the spot may not be rough or it may be scratched raw.  But writing out your position in an email, posting to a timeline, tweet, or other content platform means that your content–the purpose of your communication–is being read on the recipient’s schedule, in the recipient’s frame of mind, and wherever the recipient happens to be geographically or emotionally.  That is simply not ideal for you, and no amount of shaping and decorating your words will make up for the deficit in your thinking.

Back to the intergenerational dimensions of this problem.  If you were born with a keyboard in your hand or mouth and if you tend to want to stab a screen with your index finger nearly every time you are near one, you have long ago come to terms with shorthand and pictures as your primary way of making a point.  You must develop language skills immediately or the older people (the ones large and in charge) may not see your value.  And, that way you can teach them the shorthand.   You seem more likely to be tone-free than tone-deaf.  Neither is great.

But you are at risk for pointing at and posting content that makes a lot of assumptions about the sensibilities of others.  I don’t mean violent or sexual content.  I mean oversharing, unburdening, making political statements, and trying to get over on someone.

And at the other end of the spectrum, If you make binders of your and other people’s thoughts on relevant subjects, know that you are the opposite of the screen stabbing shorthanded identified above.  The longer you write, the more you will be misunderstood and unheard.  You are tone-heavy, and perhaps content-heavy too.

A conversation–supervised by a qualified interpreter–might help.

 

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