Communication


It’s in the news recently that US wireless providers are working on a service to allow text messaging to emergency responders. Everyone assumes this will make people more safe, but will it really?

There are several hidden costs to this possibility, one of which is a lower barrier to contacting emergency services. You can bet that every time there’s a gunshot in an urban area the number of emergency contacts will go up from the 15 people who would call to the 45 that would text.

The other issue with a SMS-based system is that it will make it much harder on emergency operators, already probably receiving a higher volume of contacts, to screen the callers or rather texters. It can be hard enough to get any sort of context in 140 characters, even when you know the person on the other end, to say nothing of when you don’t know them or where they are at the time they’re texting you. When you think about it you can probably imagine the chaos of trying to figure out what sort of emergency it is and where before sending the officers on the street running every which way to actually get to the location.

It may be the way of the future, but it’s going to require some restructuring and possibly some increased costs and the difficulties of dealing with emergencies through a medium that most people find ill-suited for anything urgent. In the real world a text can go minutes and hours without a response, and prolongs any conversation. We’ll see how that translates to emergencies and emergency responders trying to ask questions to find out more.

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So I saw this image and started wondering how different the sentence would be if we replaced “telegraph” with a more modern communication form.

For instance: 

What if this read, “Our bottle texts reliable, trusted, and ‘feel good’ “?

As an English major, I have a slight tendency to think about words. What they mean, how they are spelled, and so on. As nice as it would be if we could graduate from high school and breathe a sigh of satisfaction that our years of homework has made our vocabulary complete, that just isn’t the case.

We tend to learn our vocabulary by exposure and familiarity. We learn words and remember them as much as we use them or hear them used around us. I have always spent a lot of time reading, and that’s how I picked up a lot of my vocab. The problem with this method of learning is that I associate some of the more unique words I know with specific occurrences. I remember them in the context of a specific work, which is fine, except for the times when my original exposure was rather idiosyncratic.

All this digression is meant to show that words can mean different things to different people or in different circumstances. In fact some words mean to many things, “stuff” for instance, gets thrown around and leant on like some sort of mental crutch when we’re too lazy to come up with another word that means “things”. This sort of verbal laziness bothers me from time to time, and today I want to think about another word that may get overused.

The word is “interesting”. (Pun intended).

Interesting, it’s what people say when something titillates them, or on the other side, when something spurs them on to deeper thought. Interesting is something that strikes at our “interests” and creates connections with things that are important to us.

Something “interesting” can take us down the path of pleasurable association. It can spark confused head-scratching or further inquiry. It can refer to a sketchy or questionable situation.

The word, it means something that catches our attention. Something has to be, well, interesting. It’s become such a staple word, which perhaps isn’t a bad thing. The world is a better place when we think things are interesting.

Millenials are a hyper-connected generation. We use Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and dozens of other social networks. We email, IM and text everyone. Although we use video sites like Youtube, talk on our cell phones, or share photos on Facebook or Flickr, a lot of our communication is textual. You would think that with all this everyday experience, we would have learned what is appropriate for different situations, but apparently we haven’t.

The Wall Street Journal ran a story on inappropriate text-based communication this week and it really caught my attention just because I didn’t know that this was such a big problem.

The way you communicate can keep you from getting hired.

We millenials are so used to communicating quickly from a variety of mediums including mobile devices that make typing quickly difficult that we throw in all kinds of shorthand to make life easier for ourselves, and we even use emoticons to help express our feelings or let others know when we’re making a joke. These practices are perfectly acceptable in our daily communication with our peers and close friends, but in the business world, many, if not most, view digital shorthand as unacceptable.

At the core, a lot of our millennial communication devices seem informal, lazy, and to some, even childish. These perceptions are fairly accurate, because digital shorthand stems from a desire to communicate quickly and with a minimum of effort.

It may not be necessary to abandon “txt-speak” completely, and if you have younger co-workers, it may even help you to communicate quickly and effectively. But it can be a big turn-off for most of your senior co-workers, customers, and people thinking about hiring you.

As a brief example, I recently received an introductory message from someone on Facebook. I hadn’t met the person before, but I immediately formed a positive impression just because the message was properly capitalized, punctuated, and divided into paragraphs. I’m not averse to occasionally skipping caps myself, but even in the Facebook world, where that type of writing style is very common, taking a little extra time to make sure that your writing looks and sounds professional can make a big difference.

The key to good professional communication is something hammered into me by my English Composition teachers in college: Know your audience. If you’re writing to someone you know well and have a good relationship with, you may know from experience that they don’t mind if you toss in a few acronyms, shorthand words, or even a smiley or two. But if you don’t know the person very well and want to make a good impression, you’re better off taking the time to write a formal and professional looking note.