Friday, February 17, 2006

What is THAT supposed to mean?

There's a short but profoundly interesting article over at Wired News about how often we misunderstand the tone of the e-mail messages we read. We believe we are correctly interpreting 90% of the messages we receive, but we are wrong. Way wrong. In fact, when we try to read between the lines of e-mail messages we are misinterpreting the senders' attitudes 50% of the time.

I'm going to suggest it's the same with blog posts. I've seen my own positions wildly misrepresented by other bloggers, the most recent instances occurring about a week ago. I ended up closing down the comments on two of my posts because a bunch of angry people were sent here from some bloggers who first insisted that I was insulting foreigners and then moved on to accuse me of despising every reader and writer of an entire subgenre of romance novels.

Let's try an experiment. Read the following sentence out loud, in a normal tone of voice:

What do you mean?

Sounds like a polite request for information, doesn't it? Now read it again, this time in a playful, teasing tone.

Completely different, right? Now read it once more, this time in a snippy, irritated tone.

See the problem? When we read e-mail messages, the only voices we can hear are the ones in our own heads. And fifty percent of the time, we're assigning the wrong tones to the words we read.

For the second part of this experiment we're going to play a practical joke on my friend Chris Mikesell. (Don't worry--he deserves it.) Just now I read the current post on his blog, about the movie Curious George. Chris enjoyed the film and is encouraging his readers to go see it. Take a look at a couple of the lines he wrote, and then watch how I pick them apart:
Go see the movie. Even if you don't have kids or a date. Even if you've missed the matinee pricing.

I get so sick of his bossy tone. He knows everything, doesn't he? "Go see the movie," he says, assuming that we haven't seen it yet because we're nowhere near as cool as he is. Pompous jerk. But even more insulting was that part where he said, "Even if you don't have kids or a date." Oh, nice little digs there, Chris. So people who aren't parents are incapable of appreciating a good movie, huh? And like we couldn't get dates if we wanted them?

What really ticked me off was his snide remark about the matinee pricing. He doesn't know anything about us, but he's calling us tightwads. He assumes we'd never dream of seeing a movie that wasn't dirt-cheap or free. Honestly, I've had it up to here with his sarcasm. Real nice guy, aren't you, Mikesell? And you call yourself a Christian. Hah! Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't the Bible say something about not judging others?

Do you see what happened there? Maybe Chris had ticked me off in the past, so I was on the lookout for insults embedded in his post. Is it any surprise that I found some? It was then a simple matter of repeating his words and twisting them (whether intentionally or not), showing you how I read them, giving you no opportunity to draw your own conclusions. If you like most of what I write here on the blog and especially if you seldom read or have never read Chris' blog, you're going to lean hard in my direction, whether consciously or not. That does not make you stupid. It's merely proof that you're human. And now that I've pointed out what a jerk Chris is, maybe you'll troop over to his blog and tell him off. And we'll have started our own nasty little blog war.

From the Wired article:

...those reading messages unconsciously interpret them based on their current mood, stereotypes and expectations. Despite this, the research subjects thought they accurately interpreted the messages nine out of 10 times.

The reason for this is egocentrism, or the difficulty some people have detaching themselves from their own perspective, says [University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas] Epley. In other words, people aren't that good at imagining how a message might be understood from another person's perspective.

This, my friends, is why I don't engage in arguments when other bloggers send people here to see my latest "outrageous" post. Because those visitors, who generally are not regular readers of this blog, are coming over here primed for a fight. And since anything I say to them is likely to stir up even more resentment, it's pointless to answer their accusations. Of course, my refusal to respond makes the commenters just as mad, and they accuse me of arrogance. How can I possibly win?

I'd just like to add that if anything I've written here rubs you the wrong way, you have misinterpreted my tone and completely missed the point of this post. Also, I'd like to apologize to Chris Mikesell for using him as a guinea pig in this little experimen--

Nah, forget it. You deserved it, Chris, you know you did.


Chris said...

Hey Brenda's readers, c'mon over and throw stones. Just please wrap a $50 around them to absorb a bit of the impact. (no, seriously, a fifty would be nice ... okay, just click on the ads.)

Ya make one little comment about a romance novel and a table leg and this is the abuse you get. <Sheesh!>

But really, even if you have no reason to go see Curious George, go see it. And buy Brenda's book too; 101 household uses, not including table leveling.

Millenia Black said...

This is an excellent post. It does happen, and as easy as it is to believe your own interpretations, we should all really read e-mail and blog posts through an objective filter. Then react accordingly.

Lori said...

There is a reason why the Bible tells us as Christians to know one another after the Spirit & not after the flesh. (In other words, try to see the person's words & deeds from God's perspective, not our earthly, selfish one.)

We project our own feelings on people all the time, not just on blog posts. OK, I project all the time. I'm sure no one else does that. (She said sarcastically!)I find that it can be difficult to really stop & think about the person's heart intent in writing certain things. It is way too easy to get huffy!

Good post, Brenda! Oh, & I am choosing to think you wrote this so we could all get along better here in blogland. :)

Brenda Coulter said...

Thanks, Lori and Millenia.

And I'd like to say a public thank you to Chris Mikesell, a stand-up guy who knows how to take a joke--and who can give back as good as he gets. Wish you all could have seen the hilarious e-mail he sent me this afternoon....

Brenda Coulter said...

Me again. Chris is posting that funny message he sent me. Go over there and have a chuckle.