Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Power of Words

I have said more than once in the last few months that eventually, there will be a social networking etiquette class taught in our public schools. At least, that’s what I’m hoping, because right now, we’ve got a lot to learn about what to say and what not to say online.

My wife’s grandfather is a masterful writer. I don’t just mean in the way that he crafts words, phrases, and paragraphs. I mean, he has great penmanship. He understands the importance of what is said through the written word and has always felt the need to communicate that in as neat and orderly a fashion as possible. His handwriting is neat and deliberate and I can assure you, that the words that he writes are chosen with care.

What happened to that kind of “old school” mentality? Where did it go? How is it that standardized tests mean so much and yet penmanship and language skills seem to take such a back seat? Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking tools are incredible pictures into our culture and society. People are posting things on their profiles that, ten years ago, people wouldn’t even consider speaking in public to anyone other than close friends or family. Has nobody told them that words are permanent? Has nobody informed them that once it’s out there, retraction or not, it can’t be taken back?

When I first began in ministry, I did not think as much as I should about the use of email as a tool. I used it without considering the significance of it and what the potential pitfalls were as well. After a few mishaps (maybe more than a few), I realized that the sarcasm that I generally carried with me in face-to-face conversations was not easily translatable via a bunch of words on a computer screen. Even people who I had close relationships with were scratching their heads at some of the things that they received from me, wondering exactly what I had meant. I would inevitably end up on the phone with people, clarifying so as to avoid any long-lasting negative effects.

I have since adopted a policy that I live by when it comes to email: always send your second email. What do I mean by that? In attempting to communicate volatile information or information that could easily be misconstrued or misinterpreted, it’s always a good idea to edit your emails. Above and beyond that, when I get emails from people who may have a specific agenda, I can type out my response, but I generally throw that first response away. I just chalk it up to my “sinful nature” and move on to Email #2. That’s usually the one that shows well-thought out sentences and takes into account the potential consequences of the words that I am using. When I am emotionally charged, I’m probably not going to write the best emails or posts. Taking a few deep breaths and letting things settle usually does the trick.

A friend of mine recently sent me a transcript of a major case of misinterpretation and misuse of words. My heart was saddened at the response of some of the people within the “conversation” who came in with agendas. They were going to say what they “needed” to say come hell or high water. Once they “said their piece” they closed their ears, just like so many of us used to do at the playground, “I’m taking my toys and going home.” That’s the most childish and selfish thing a person can do. It was apparent that these people needed no convincing or swaying, and nothing was going to change their minds. They were right and everyone else was wrong, no matter what you told them. That’s just ignorant.

Tonight, I heard of someone posting a Facebook status that was hurtful to their peers. I wondered what the point was. Did they feel like they had accomplished their goal? Did they really “show ‘em who’s boss?” How many times do people really respond positively when they are challenged by words on a screen? I just wonder what the original intent was of the status update. Is the person hurting that badly that they need to call attention to themselves?

Here are a few tips that I use when it comes to emails, Facebook, Twitter, and any other medium that I use where I can potentially be misunderstood:

1) Choose your words carefully. Remember that people are reading it, even people that you might not want to read it. Studies are showing that more and more employers are checking people’s Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and other pages when they interview. Unfavorable things are not going to show you favorably in your prospective employer’s eyes.

2) Send your second response. I mentioned this already, but in emotionally charged situations or situations that are ripe with misunderstanding, it’s best to let this kind of stuff settle. Take some time away and think through what you’re going to say. No one likes the person who speaks (or types) first and thinks about what they said later.

3) Does it need to be said? If you never wrote the words, would people be better off or not? Are they absolutely necessary? This is a tough one. I have to admit that I put a lot of useless stuff up sometimes, but I know that, although it may be useless, it’s not hurtful. Hopefully it doesn’t make anyone more stupid…

4) Think about the potential interpretation of what you are writing. Can it be misconstrued? Can someone read it in a way that you did not intend? Again, being honest here, I definitely post things in order to evoke a response at times. It’s not usually an angry response that I am looking for, but usually, if I know that it can be misunderstood, that could be my point in posting it. I don’t think that I can say the same for everyone.

5) What would your mom say? Maybe your mom’s not on Facebook (mine’s not), but someone else’s mom is. What would she think? Are you using words that you wouldn’t normally use (and I don’t mean SAT vocabulary)? Don’t forget about those potential employers.
It’s hard to convey this message since it seems to be somewhat countercultural. Our culture doesn’t exactly support the idea of choosing words wisely. Even our past presidents have fallen short in this area. We know that our celebrities do it on a regular basis.
I think about what David wrote in Psalm 19:14, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Just remember, think before you type!

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