". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Measuring Our Words and Those of Others

Rebekah has a thought-provoking post at the CSPP blog right now. It reminds me of this one I wrote a few months ago. I think both posts make the point that when it comes to that thing we call "best construction" we can be decidedly selective in how we apply it. We will move heaven and earth to read the words and actions of our friends in the best possible light but when it comes to those about whom our feelings are more, shall we say, ambivalent, we don't always look for the most positive "spin." With our friends, we readily tolerate, turn the other cheek, forgive, and explain away whatever we must to maintain harmony, but with those we feel less charitable towards we are sadly inclined to look for offense.

The question, then, is what to do? The theme of my post linked above is taken from a story my husband tells his music students: "just play." In other words, don't worry about how you are going to be perceived because no matter how you play your friends will cheer you and your detractors will point out what you did wrong. I think it's good advice. I have a problem with caring too much about what other people think--about me, about my family, about my church--and I am working on that and realizing there is not much I can do about it--they will think what they will think, regardless of what I do, whether it's based in reality or not. But I also think when it comes to internet communication there are things we can all do to make it more likely that our interactions will be positive. We have all experienced online disagreements, both those handled well and those handled poorly, and if we are honest with ourselves we have at various times contributed to both. Of course, there are some people who seem incapable of the former and who always do the latter, and they are the ones we learn to avoid at all costs because when we disagree with them we will invariably have our heads handed to us on platters. But most people are more reasonable than that, and since we do so much communicating on the internet these days, isn't it worth our time to take the extra care that we can rather than toss words out thoughtlessly and carelessly, putting the onus on others to read them in the right way and pleading "you are so sensitive" and "you can't take a joke" when they don't?

Now certainly, big boys and girls should be able to disagree on matters of principle without getting mad at one another. And they do--I see it done well all the time. So what is it that turns a difference of opinion into something in which at least one person has taken offense? Usually it's because the difference of opinion has somehow become personalized. So the question is how to keep that from happening?

The best way to do that is to keep the focus on the substance of the disagreement. You like Mac and I like PC and we ought to be able have a discussion about it and go on peacefully coexisting. However, if the substance of the disagreement is akin to "Your daddy is lazy and your mama is fat and you all go to a stupid church" it's probably time to walk away from the discussion. :-) You can ask for clarification, but if the same thing comes back a second time you will have to decide if you want to argue the point (probably not advisable) or just let it go (bingo!).

If, however, you decide to continue a discussion in which there is a substantive disagreement, the avoiding of offense usually boils down not to the "what" of our words but the "how" of them. And therein lies the challenge. It's that elusive thing called "tone" that is easy to hear in speech but hard to pin down in writing. Certainly it can be identified--as a writer and teacher I would not argue otherwise--but it can also be easily misinterpreted, especially when one is predisposed to do so. This is where Rebekah's point about the hearer comes in. If we feel secure with the other person, if we feel trusting, if there is a friendship there, we tend to hear the words one way. If the person is someone we don't know or like or trust, we are more likely to hear the words in another way. I don't know how to get around that--it's just the way it is. But it is why, more and more, I question the use of sarcasm and snark and the like in written communication, especially communication that we intend to be substantive. It is just so easily misread. If we are really interested in meaningful communication leading to understanding, our words need to be chosen with the utmost of care and delivered with the greatest level of reasoned objectivity that we can muster. We should avoid what is known in the study of rhetoric as "loaded" language--words with high emotional content. And as hearers, we need to take time and care and go above and beyond in trying to understand one another. We need to ask, "Did you mean to say?" and withhold hasty judgments and turn the other cheek and proceed in caution and gentleness at all times.

All easy to say but harder to do. Here are some examples of utterances that are not conducive to achieving understanding, followed by suggested alternatives that keep the focus on the subject at hand rather than redirecting it to the individuals involved:

If someone says something you find surprising, don't say "You have got to be kidding" or "You should have your head examined" or "It's sad to see that some people still believe that silly notion." Instead say, "That surprises me [focus on you, not the other person]. Why do you think that?"

If someone appears to be getting worked up, don't say "Clearly I have touched a nerve." It sounds like you are enjoying feeling as though you have the upper hand. Instead, just continue in as calm a manner possible. Maybe the other person isn't getting worked up at all. Maybe you have misread the situation. But if emotions are starting to run high, you may be able to diffuse them by not calling attention to the fact and by remaining humble and carrying on as reasonably as possible.

If someone mentions a book or movie or song you can't abide, don't say, "You're reading/watching/listening to/singing that piece of crud?" Instead say "That's not my preference" or "I'm not sure about that. Why do you like it?"

If someone says, "I don't understand" don't belittle him for not understanding something that you think everyone ought to easily grasp. Ask, "What don't you understand?" and then try to explain it to him.

If someone expresses dislike/disapproval for something you are fond of (a certain fashion, perhaps, or maybe a particular decorating theme), don't take it personally. Sometimes I see people wear things to church that I would never wear or decorate their homes with items I would never choose. It doesn't mean I dislike them or think less of them for the choice they have made. We have a difference of opinion about what is appropriate or attractive. We can still be friends (as long as I don't attack their choice derisively by saying one of the phrases above!).

Realize that, ultimately, criticizing someone's tone is a red herring. That's not to say tone doesn't matter--we should all aim for the highest possible level of discourse. But once you have leveled a charge of "I don't like your tone" you are abandoning the substance of the argument and turning your attention to its execution. Perhaps that is what you want to do. But it is a different issue from the one at hand.

Finally, this may run counter to what you might think, but with the advent of more and more written communication I think people tend to go overboard in their efforts to lend expression to their words through the use of capital letters and punctuation and colorful turns of phrase. My advice, if you are communicating with someone you don't have an extremely close relationship with, or if you find yourself disagreeing online with anyone at all, is to err on the side of less, rather than more, expressiveness. Be formal rather than informal and objective rather than subjective. If you truly want to come to understanding and a harmonious ending, make every possible effort to inoculate your words against misunderstanding. Exclamation points, capital letters, and colorful expressions draw attention to you and your personal voice rather than keeping the focus on the subject at hand and are as a result generally not helpful.

It's an internet jungle out there. It truly is, and hiding behind every tree is a wild animal waiting to pounce or some quicksand ready to suck you in. If at all possible, when you sense danger turn around and go the other way. It is possible to come out alive, but realize if you venture in that you probably won't completely escape injury. But with some care you can minimize the risk to both yourself and others and along the way you may encounter enough beauty to make the trip worthwhile.