Sticks and Stones

September 18, 2007 at 2:02 am (Communication, Life, Love, Relationships, Second Life)

Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs. – Pearl Strachan

When my parents suggested I pursue an undergraduate degree in Communications, I doubt they envisioned I’d use it to the extent that I have. I think they thought it a good stepping stone to a law degree. Yet I’m struck by its growing relevance as more of my communication migrates online within social networking communities like Second Life, Facebook, & MySpace. I guess I should take this moment to thank my mom and dad for their foresight, for I now have little doubt that those skilled in the art of communication will increasingly come out ahead (rest assured, all innuendo, sexual or otherwise, is deliberate and intended).

In my scholarly pursuits I learned that successful communication only happens when “the recipient receives the message intended by the sender.” As we know, both online and off, this too often doesn’t happen. At least when we interact offline–whether face-to-face or by voice–we enjoy the added benefits of facial expression, tone of voice, and other nonverbal clues to help us glean the sender’s intended message. When we communicate online, however, words are the real currency we employ to relate to one another. And I’m not sure we truly calculate the magnitude of their worth.

That said I think there are a few simple guidelines we can all follow when trying to minimize our propensity toward the pervasive plague of foot-in-mouth disease. First, except for the ubiquitous acronym (brb, ttyl, lol, etc.) recognize that one-word answers to questions posed in chat have no place in online communication. Ambiguous responses like “fine” and “ok” are notoriously exposed to negative interpretation and should be used sparingly. If we soften our replies simply by adding other words (as in “sure, fine” or “ok, no problem”), we diminish the likelihood that our friends will decipher our discourse erroneously.

Another practice we can perpetuate to help ensure conversational harmony is to be generous with our statements and our filters. When issuing utterances to our loved ones, remember to opt for the most loving or giving option. For example, instead of barking “couldn’t you have at least called me?” consider cheerfully rephrasing to the more delicate “I missed hearing from you.” Likewise, when your conversation cohort chats you up, bestow upon him or her the benefit of the doubt and graciously guess they mean the best. If you’re confused about something they say, politely ask for clarification.

Lastly, be aware of how deep and damaging hurtful words can be. Because, like a fierce fist that delivers a powerful and painful punch in the stomach, cruel words can harm our hearts and cannot be taken back. So before throwing poison arrows and launching into that vicious tirade of epithets, take a deep breath and consider the energy you expend to throw those foul fumes. For, while sticks and stones may break bones in RL, words can slice more skillfully and severely than the sharpest sword.

Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall. –Oliver Wendell Holmes



  1. AA said,

    Words? Power? in SL? Who knew? I just usually let the poseballs and Xcite parts do all my talking… 😛

  2. zooey said,

    How thoughtfully put Cindy. SL has been my first experience chatting online. After getting over my initial love of learning this entire new way of communicating, and establishing some relationships where we have dialogue patterns, I’ve been put off by responses as simple as ‘kk’ (this to me almost comes across as ‘whatever’ i’m busy in another IM) and the lack of an exclamation point or a smile in a greeting can even bother me when I’m particularly sensitve (especially after getting lots of exclamations from someone). Honestly, after experiencing the feeling evoked from some phrases, I tend to use them..the good & the not so good. So, a ‘heya zooey!’ tells me someone is happy to see me…give me a ‘hey z’ and i think you’re not so enthused. Disclaimer: All future greetings from Zooey may or may not intentionally be sending messages that require you to read between the lines.

  3. Joonie said,

    Hey Z – LOL….kk
    My personal favorite (no way) is “hun.” You can call me that tho, Z! 😉

    Cindy, you did it again. You put everything so concisely into perspective. I agree and only wish I had read your post earlier in my SLife.

    When I first joined SL, I was totally overwhelmed and it took me a while to ‘get it.’ Perhaps because in my RL things were so predictable. Emotionally, I was totally confused! LOL And I let that confusion out on a regular basis!

    Having learned the hard way through copied messages and forwarded emails, I am much more aware of the things I say and the ‘sound’ of the words I use. Things have been taken completely opposite of how I meant them. I think text chat is notorious for that until you get to know a person better.

    Thanks for your insight, Cindy.

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