Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing Sociably

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing Sociably

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It's been that time of year again, online friends. You know, the holidays. When people have extra time on their hands, go and visit the social websites they haven't had time to grace for the past year, and proceed to lose friends and alienate people by their rude, cavalier, or merely tasteless offhand remarks.

As one long-time user put it, 'I'm tempted to tell them we didn't miss them, either. But that would be rude.' Amen.

Now, I don't want to talk about people too gauche to realise that, indeed, nobody missed them online while they were away annoying someone else. Instead, I'd like to talk about the way we communicate socially these days via the internet – by email, on online fora, on social sites such as this one is (occasionally), and anywhere else we happen to write, comment, or post in the busy 21st Century.

We often don't realise it, but when we write, we convey a lot about ourselves to people who often don't know what we look like, or even what the names on our driving licences are. They may not know how you part your hair (or if you have any to part), but they know more about you than you think if they've been reading email or posts from you for any length of time.

Here are some of the things they know about you, in no particular order:

  • They know whether you're literate. Well, duh. They know if you can spell (and in what country), they know whether you are a friend to punctuation, and they know what kind of vocabulary you've got. They also know how you tend to convey ideas, and how addicted to the emoticon you've become. In fact, they know what your favourite emoticon is. (And yes, I know mine is 'rofl', and I know what that says about me. Frivolity, thy name is Gheorgheni.)
  • They know how impatient you are. Do you double- or triple-post on a regular basis? Do you send people addenda to your emails before they have time to answer? Then you will come across as impatient, even if most of the time, you're just disorganised and forgetful. Don't want people to know this about you? Stop and proofread before you hit 'Send'.
  • They know how conceited you are. You don't believe this? How much that you write is about your personal feelings? When you describe an experience, do you concentrate on how the event would seem to an outside observer, or on your personal reaction? Is the takeaway from your account of a day out, 'I had a good time' or 'here is what I saw/learned'? A story someone told online is memorable to me because, although it involved some rather exciting events such as a graduation ceremony, the event that the teller found most important to share was that someone spilled coffee in the car, which was really annoying. Yes, this is akin to posting selfies in which your t-shirt-clad person is obscuring a major world heritage site.
  • They know what kind of sense of humour you have. Yes, that's obvious, too. Are you forever joking? Do you do so appropriately? My mom and dad, God rest them both, used to argue about this a bit. Especially in North Carolina. My mother would say, 'Now, Claude, don't joke with strangers like that. They may not get it.' And she was right. My dad, like me, preferred to break the ice with levity. This does not always work. I can think of several cultures right off the top of my head where the people are friendly, tolerant, kind, and above all honest, but who do not have what some people regard as a sense of humour. That is, they will automatically assume you are being serious unless you tell them ahead of time that you aren't. This leads to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. People from Galway, on the other hand? You can pull their legs all day, and they won't care. At least, the ones I used to work with.
  • They know how kind you are. You wouldn't think this sort of information could be had by talking on a chatline or email server, would you? After all, kindness is something you do, not something you talk about. But you know what? It shows. How, you ask? (And I'm glad you did.) Because online, concern, caring, and just plain attention is a form of social currency. People go online to talk and listen. Yes, they use their eyes and fingers rather than their ears and mouths, but so do the deaf. We're talking to one another across the pixels – sometimes with a delay, such as when I publish this article and wait to see if you answer me by commenting, but still, we're talking. And expressing concern, listening to each other, encouraging each other? That's what we have to give. And do you know what? An ungenerous person cannot stand to give that. Even though you'd think it costs little enough. So yes, people can tell whether you're kind. Because if you are, you listen, and answer, and come back.

And you don't wait a year before you return and let someone know you didn't miss them at all.

Want to have a conversation about this, or change the subject? There's plenty of space at the bottom of this page, and I'll make time.

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