While meeting a client today – face to face – I was again reminded of the minefield that is communication, especially in emerging social spaces. We spent much of the meeting clearing up a misunderstanding arising from several text and e-mail messages, include one or two that were never delivered or missing attachments. The potential crisis of trust emanating from these misunderstandings might have undone months of positive experiences we’d shared as client and consultant.
Communication is always complicated, but today its even harder to make yourself understood. To handle some of these issues, AP (the associated press, the leading standard-barer for American English) today released a new version of its guide, which included terms associated with social media. This doesn’t address all the communication issues arising today. Among the other issues creating problems are:
- Language barriers – increasingly the landscape is global, especially when you’re talking about social media. For example, when I checked my analytics for this site this morning (which should be a daily ritual for all of you who operate websites), I found visitors from many countries had accessed my website, even though this was not a specific goal of this blog. These visitors reflect a number of European languages, as well as at least 2 dialects of Chinese. My foreign visitors must have been fluent in English or had ready access to a translation process, since the bounce rate for these visitors was low.
- Cultural barriers – these are even more significant than language barriers. Culture is like a pair of lenses that you can’t take off and that change your view of the world in such a way that its hard for you to imagine what people see with another pair of lenses. Most seriously, these cultural lenses affect an individual’s values — what they treasure and what is not important — as well as shared experiences that affect the meaning of specific words. There is substantial variation in culture even within a country (which is why Hofstede, a leading figure in cross-cultural business, is so often misused). For instance, in the US we have differences based on age (try understanding a conversation between your teen and one of his/her friends if you don’t believe me), gender, and geography (for instance Eskimos have something like 27 different words for snow, while most of the rest of us are happily served with just one). That’s not even taking into consideration the various sub-cultures, such as metrosexuals and digital mavens (those who use electronic resources extensively), or blended cultures in the US, such as African Americans and Hispanic Americans. Since I often work in several different cultures, I try to use information gathered from these experiences to guide my writing and improve clarity for those from other cultures. If readers wish to comment on my failings in this regard, I’m happy to hear your comments so I can improve my cultural sensitivity.
- Comprehension barriers – its no secret that writings have a specific reading level associated with them, such as 12th grade reading level, college reading level, etc. The military recently reduced the reading level of many of its training manuals to an 8th grade level to increase comprehension.
- Interpretation barriers – language is more than the words used. Language includes inflection (for instance a question normally involves raising the pitch at the end, while an exclamation is said in a different tone), gestures, facial expressions, context (where utterances are made and to whom), and other non-verbal cues. In social spaces it is these features that might be missing, leading to misunderstanding. For instance, a blog posted today may be nearly uninterpretable in a few months or years as readers become less familiar with current conditions and news. An online utterance meant to be sarcastic or in jest might be taken the wrong way without the inflection and facial expressions (which are absent or easily overlooked in online social networks) necessary to add to the interpretation of the utterance. Similarly, a tweet is likely to be misunderstood due to the artificial restriction to 140 characters per tweet.
How serious are these problems for implementing your social strategy? What actions can you use to help minimize these problems?