I’ll be the first to admit, I sometimes read far into things. Spending most of my college days in advanced lit classes, I was trained to find every nuance, hidden symbol, and piece of figurative language in almost every sentence I encountered. So naturally, when it comes to words, emotions, and stories, I have a tendency to take an ordinary conversation over text as a hyperbolic declaration of feelings just by the way someone wrote ‘C u later,’ (winky-faced emoji included, of course).
Do you remember your high school literature class? The teacher told you to read a poem by Shakespeare or Langston Hughes and made you pick apart every word in every line to try and dissect the author’s intent. The key to this exercise is that by looking at the author’s choice of words, characteristics, arrangement, and meaning, we can better understand what the author was trying to communicate, but why. Though arduous, the task can prove somewhat helpful, provided we attribute a relative mastery to these authors’ command of the language.
Someone with excellent mastery over language can communicate complex emotions by using much more than words at their face value. The problem is that the average person may not have the same expertise with language as Shakespeare. It makes sense to harp on the words of a master author, especially when chaperoned by someone with an English degree, but otherwise, all of Shakespeare’s complexity might be lost on us.
Let’s stay in high school for a moment. Do you recall writing and receiving letters from your crush? The adolescent love detective inside us combs through these letters as if conducting a forensic investigation. If they put hearts over the “I,” then it means they might like you, but maybe that is just how they write their “I”s to everyone? We do this now as well, at least I do.
We read into emails from our co-workers, and we read into Facebook messages. We break apart comments from our ex-significant other on our Instagram pictures, and of course, text messages. There is never enough information on the page or screen is there? Words alone are so mono-dimensional that we need this context and subtext, to create an actual depth of meaning and valuable communication.
The question we have to ask ourselves is, “Does any of this help?” If most of us do not have degrees in English and are not trained to analyze the complex messages of the written word, could we be misinterpreting the news that a person is sending us? On the other side of the coin, if we are not masters of language ourselves, are we accurately sending the messages we want to communicate?
There used to be set rules for language that we all had to follow, a large part of these rules where grammar and punctuation. That helped relay pace and tone. These are the things our English teacher tried to instill in us. At the same time, we were learning an entirely different set of rules on the playground or outside the classroom. How can we be sure these rules are standardized to minimize miscommunication? Or does that even matter?
If your co-worker sends you an email in all caps, you’ll assume they are freaking out and may respond with “ALL CAPS? Are you mad?” but it all too often they were merely working on a spreadsheet and forgot to take off the caps lock. We didn’t learn that yelling equals caps lock from our English teacher. That intensity is communicated because of the harsh emphasis on each letter. But that is what bold is supposed to be for. Except you can’t use bold in a text message, so we have switched to using caps, which has translated over to computing.
With the rules, as loose as they are, does it really help us analyze other people’s messages when we don’t know what set of rules they were trying to follow if any? It is far more likely that a person is making a hunch about what you will understand based on what they are writing, and there is an increasing amount of slack in these rules, which means the margin for error is much higher. You could be not only reading into a subtext and getting the wrong message, but the subtext you are searching for may not even be there.
We make assumptions this way about what the message “really” may be antithetical to what is on the page. This is especially the case when we re-read something that was only drafted once before sent. Instead of making assumptions about the content of the message, ask yourself what message it is, and consider how much thought may have been put into its composition. Then, only invest as much time reading into a word as you can reasonably assume was put into writing it in the first place.
Until someone takes the time to ask and verify intent, we can get caught in a vicious cycle. This is easier said than done in the heat of the moment, but if we practice confirming intention in casual communication, we are more likely to do so when it really counts.