Sunday, May 10, 2009

Richness of text, paucity of expression

Recently I have had several people* tell me that I come across as cold and angry via text-only communications like email and instant message. The ensuing meta-conversations revealed that this is because (and I summarize) I use full sentences with capitalization and grammar, and no emoticons. As the linked Wikipedia article says,
An emoticon (pronounced e-moh-ti-kon) is a textual portrayal of a writer's mood or facial expression. They are often used to alert a responder to the tenor or temper of a statement, and can change and improve interpretation of plain text.
While it is true that including a smiley-face can change the interpretation of plain text, I'm not sure that it improves the interpretation. (Maybe I should change that Wikipedia entry.) There are, as far as I can tell, two things going on here.

The first is that there is [apparently] a standard format of social internet communications: no capital letters, little punctuation, lots of :-) :-D :-P. Although I am of the correct generation, I didn't pick this up in my internet persona. Because I lack it, but my peers have it, there is an expectation that I communicate this way ("oh hai!!!! :P"). My failure to do so comes across as a purposeful linguistic smackdown. I've also been informed that full sentences with capital letters and punctuation are used in "oh hai!!! :P" conversations to indicate a tone which is stern/upset.

The second is that I have clear textual indications of mood and tone. Word choice, punctuation, italicization, boldface... there are many ways to indicate tone without drawing a simulacrum of a face. Even straightforward description of emotions is possible! (I'm feeling fine, thanks.) These ways have been around for longer than the internet. Have you ever read a piece of writing from before the era of email? A novel, perhaps? A play? Somehow those mere words, naked of smiley-faces and frowny-faces, manage to convey emotions and tone.

I may be a young and uppity twenty-something, but I am old and crotchety in the way I use and relate to text. Our language is rich with words and expressions -- and, lo! and behold! these things termed "expressions" express things, including tone and emotion. English has a long and lovely history as a written language. While I do not bemoan its current warping in internet-speak (languages change over time and no one can stop this), there are enough modes of written English for me to select from that I feel no compulsion to abbreviate myself.

For your reference, o my readers of the new style of text, I write this in a moderate, neutral, somewhat bemused tone. (Though when I was first confronted with "you are so cold!" I felt like the robapocalypse could not come soon enough and turn me into a Borg. At least the Borg never have these problems. Plus, they've figured out interstellar travel and have a killer catchphrase.)

*I wonder why no one told me this before. Maybe my family members and college and high school peers don't know how to broach the subject, or maybe they understand my mode of communication. I miss my punster friends. They are a lingual delight.

I love words. This post's theme word: anodyne, "deliberately uncontentious and inoffensive."

This post's BONUS theme cartoon:


George said...

It is true. I think I figured out that you did that normally pretty quickly however since I have known other people with your ... problem. So you don't come off as cold and stern to me now.

But text communication IS hard. I don't buy your argument about novels, etc. because those often have a narrator explaining how someone said something (even if it is first person). And I think archaic and formal letters have a much more restricted emotional domain and when they don't they make very very careful use of emotion markers. People have to work harder to understand and convey emotion in text.

masha51 said...

u go grrl!!
cu l8r


Lila is a complex system. said...

In response to "I come across as cold and angry via text-only communications like email and instant message." A. wrote (via chat!):

I always assumed that was because you are cold and angry. Now I am enlightened. It is because you have a functioning keyboard. Any progress on figuring out why you come across as cold and angry in face-to-face communications like conversation and dialogue?

RP said...

For your information, Lila, when Anglo-Saxon scribes copied out the OE poem 'Wulf and Eadwacer' over the generations, tradition demanded that they terminate the line "Ungelic is us!" with a little :'(

Now you know.

Andrea said...

you don't come across as cold and angry. I do get intimidated by all capital letters, or emails that people send that say things like "I never want to see you again" or "how dare you speak to me like that" but otherwise it's all fine. Also, a lot of the emails I receive from you might have to do with octopus erotica.