May 09, 2006

It's Very Easy to Offend Someone Without Looking At Them

My blog title this week seems a little cryptic. Anyway, my topic is about communication & ettiquete.

Strange enough that if you leaf through all the job ads, career tips and even our daily news, you will find one common theme that keeps repeating over and over again - C O M M U N I C A T I O N.

If you look at the job ads, you will find that even in a job such as computer operator, the criteria stated there is to "have good communication skills" or "able to communicate with different global team members", and for some job ads which are just a few lines long --- "able to speak and write XXXX <--- language". Anyway, I've been in IT for a while, and one thing I find lacking in a lot of IT professionals is their ability to communicate. If you have to describe your idea/concerns with another person through speech, I'm very sure you'll need to be able to do the following:
  1. Speak clearly & concisely (I'm clearly not concise --> pun)
  2. Listen as you speak
  3. Think before you speak i.e. plan your thoughts

These are just some basic guidelines on communicating your ideas across. What about writing them down?

This is where things get very tricky. Be it e-mail or instant messaging, when you communicate your ideas across on "paper" (virtual or hard copy), you must remember that you're dealing with a faceless person. That person may not mean to be rude or impertinent in that e-mail or letter but because we are reading it at face value, sometimes, that little voice in your head will make it sound like that.

This is exactly what happened to me the other day. This is a sample of our conversation,

Friend: So nice, 6:30pm, people can ciao liao.
Me: I see. Well, going back early is a choice. Its up to you if you want to go back early or not.
Me: I've given up on looking to see who is going home early or late because it does not serve me any benefits.

Friend: I'm not gonna talk to you now.

My friend probably thought I was being a little condescending, but I meant well. So, I left the conversation as that, let my friend cool off a little bit. Its hard NOT to take offence at how people e-mail or message you over on instant messaging because you don't see the other person's face.

That's why, I always try to put a little smiley to let people know that its not that serious.

Perhaps, step one of being a great communicator is to watch out for stuff like that. Knowing that in this age, we have to deal with a "faceless" customer, we probably should watch our language, spoken (through the phone) or written.

Humans are social animals and we take our social cues from the other person we're interacting with. So, without the face which goes with the e-mail or voice, sometimes, we form our own facial image in our mind and that can be skewed or biaised perception. If you think your boss is a big flirt, you'll probably have a picture of him that way in your mind as you're reading his e-mails, possibly not taking the e-mail for its content but for its face value only.

So, how can we remove that bias perception? Its very difficult and its a constant challenge. I'd suppose, probably teaching someone to use punctuation properly would dramatically change the way an e-mail/letter sounds. For e.g.,

The panda eats, shoots and leaves.
The panda eats shoots and leaves

Which one is correct? Its up to you. You can say that the panda only eats shoots and leaves or, does the act of eating, shooting (possibly a hunter) and then leaves the scene of crime. Same sentence, different meaning with proper punctuation. Ref: Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

So, watch your language, be it official or unofficial, because it might just offend someone and you may never know it. :). Frankly, communication skills also has to do with language skills, so , be it English, Chinese, or Yiddish, if you are not mastering the language, you're bound to suffer more communication issues....

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