Day 1: Looking for the Right Words

Words have power. Enormous incredible power.  The right words in the right tone at the right moment can make all the difference. Something that I’ve been increasingly fascinated by is how this power gets translated into the online medium.

In this 31 day writing blitz I’ve said that I’ll reveal various bits of backstory about the Girl with the Red Hair. Well one of the things that many of you might not know about me is that my second language is American Sign Language. I went to a public high school that had a special program to teach sign language and integrated deaf students and interpreters into our classes.

Learning ASL made me think about all of the aspects of communication that I take for granted. So much goes into auditory signals- from tone of voice to pattern of speech- there’s so much additional context that gets added. In ASL all of this must be replaced by body language and visual cues- and that can lead some some gaps in translation.

My third year of sign, I started feeling like my teacher had something against me and I asked her if everything was ok. She said that it was nothing personal but she felt like I was constantly yelling at her because of the intensity with which I was signing. She said that she knew that I was a passionate and expressive person but that I needed to figure out how to moderate that when I signed. For the digital age the equivalent was as if I was typing in all caps constantly. I think back to that occasion often. I had no way of knowing that the words I was communicating were being perceived in such a different manner.

In ASL the auditory context has been replaced by body language. Training to become an interpreter includes how to translate auditory context such as tone of voice. But there’s no such analogue for the digital age- and what we’re trying to replace is much larger.  Sure there are emojis 🙁 , CAPSLOCK, underlining for emphasis, but still much is lost in translation. And this can have major consequences. I’ve been at several organizations now that have encouraged collaboration via text or chat tools, the problem is that when you have high stress situations you really need that tone of voice or knowing grin to mitigate harsh words.

ASL has rules and I think we need some for the digital age of communication. We need to be aware that long conversations occurring only via chat are at serious risk of misinterpretation. So care must be given to the word we choose to use in these communiques. The irony of course is that chat tools are there to increase productivity at organizations- designed to replace the need for long phone calls or even emails. They are meant to be short-form. But in the desire to streamline you risk loosing a whole lot of context- and really the humanity is all in the context. That’s what separates us from a chatbot.


Okay so that was the post for Day 1. I think I said what I meant to say but it seems a bit preachy at the end. Doesn’t help that I’m finishing it up from the back of a car en route to a minor league Cyclones Game with my in-laws! But that’s the point of this exercise- to get myself writing out my thoughts with as little filter as is possible. So… I’m going to hit publish. 

Until tomorrow…. 

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