Printed text is supposed to be a representation of speech, but that is only half-true. In no language are the written and spoken forms identical. Some formal documents, such as proclamations or contracts, the gap between the written and spoken is large. Correspondence, memos, comic book, and playscripts come closer to everyday speech, but each has its own conventions. Even so, when we read something we assign a tone to it, because that is how our brain processes language. WTF? Might be understood angrily, or might be understood humorously, but when we read it, we assign at least some spoken tone to it.
Curiously, it is hard to go back to hear a different tone in a text once your brain has assigned one. Once you have read the breakup letter from your now ex-girlfriend, there will be sentences that will be difficult to reinterpret with a different emotional valence. This occurs even over the phone, and because of changing environments, live conversations are not fully exempt from it. Correcting, overcorrecting, denying, and explaining are what young lovers seem to talk about all the time, particularly when things start going badly.
Decades ago, when memos became common, getting the tone right was often a problem. People felt they were being ordered around rudely or not fully answered. Some writers picked up the proper music for the form, inserting “pls” or “?” or informalities to lighten the tone, but there is still ample room for offense even now, years later. This process was repeated as voicemail, email, texting, and social media came on. Each has its own problems. Sometimes a simple re-explanation is enough when one seeks clarification. “When I wrote ‘now’ it wasn’t because I thought you were slow or wouldn’t do it. It’s because when I sent you there last week it didn’t start until afternoon.” Oh, okay fine.
Yet sometimes no amount of explanation suffices. When the whole department receives an email there is sometimes discussion about what the tone or subtext is, and even reasonable explanations aren’t accepted. “I don’t buy it. I think she’s telling us we’d better shape up or heads will roll, and she has a few heads in mind already.” Or, the fourth paragraph of that letter from Tina doesn’t seem to admit of any other interpretation. It says what it says, you think. Tina’s assertion that it doesn’t mean quite what you think it means seems merely evasive.
Those are the observations, and I’ll bet many of you can expand on them, give better examples or exceptions, or correct my impressions. Go for it. I am still assembling the data here. This is hardly a novel set of ideas, but I haven’t been intentional about thinking them through until now, so I may miss wildly.
More fascinating to me now that I have the basics down on the page are some questions which arise.
1. 1. I am critical of others for jumping to conclusions on tone and finding it difficult to back off, but this is something I do as well. Are these related? Are those who jump also those who find it hardest to jump back? Are they more likely to be irritated by others jumping?
2. How much of our jumping to conclusions is jumping to the wrong tone? People who expect that others generally talk down to them certainly hear that more frequently. I wonder if that is even broader. When we read a news story about a riot, are we hearing the sound of rioters’ voices, of policemen’s voices, of neighbors’ or children’s, or even people who will probably talking for the cameras later, way in the back of our heads and drawing conclusions from those voices before content? Is voice the mechanism for prejudices? (Or were voices the original foundation of our leaping, even though they have long faded?)
3. 3. I have said that jumping to conclusions is a common mistake of the intelligent. They get rewarded frequently and punished seldom. The quick of thought jump to correct conclusions about many small things all their lives. Arbitrarily, 90%. When they miss, they can out-argue the other few present much of the time, even when they are wrong. Over 50% of the time anyway. That doesn’t leave many times out of a hundred when they get have to swallow it. That’s been my theory until now, anyway. This leaping goes wrong as questions become more difficult and ambiguous. The smart person may leap correctly on only 75% of harder questions, and no better than 50% on ambiguous ones. Yet they still automatically think of themselves as one who is quickly right 97% of the time and act accordingly. (Insert Taleb) Perhaps that is not the mechanism, or not all of it. Perhaps there are people who cannot reassign tone, intelligence having little to do with it.
The moral of the story is Don't try and be funny on the internet.