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Watch Your Language: The art of word choice in our digital and mobile lives

I’m the first to admit that I have a texting problem. But it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone. According to the Pew Research Center, the typical texter sends or receives about 42 text messages per day, which is about 1,260 text messages per month. I wasn’t fully aware of my textual behavior until a recent visit with my not-so-cellphone-savvy grandmother. As I was making plans with a few friends via text, my grandmother blurted “All you kids ever do is type on those things – do any of you ever call and have an actual conversation anymore?” At first I thought she was surreptitiously guilt tripping me into calling her more often (which I should, sorry Nana), but then I realized that she may be onto something.

All things considered, text messaging is the fastest, most convenient method for getting in touch with someone. We live in an age where one or two sentence Facebook messages are more digestible than email and short text messages are preferred over lengthy phone conversations. We’ve slowly adapted to 140-character limits and the occasional use of “abrevs” (which can sometimes require a visit to urbandictionary.com) to further condense the length of our messages. Since the length of our written “conversations” continues to dwindle, word choice is becoming increasingly more important.

Oddly enough, I’ve found that the room for misinterpretation of tone grows based on the brevity of the message. We’ve all tried reading between the lines of a brusque text message or have blankly stared at a CapsLock-heavy email trying to decode a hidden message – “Wait, is he ‘yelling’ at me or just trying to be emphatic? Maybe the CAPS key got stuck?” But it doesn’t matter if you’re casually typing on your mobile phone or laptop; words still carry meaning and nuance.

Choosing the right language is a science and requires a concerted effort. Some people have even dedicated their career to studying the correlation between language and social connection. Take Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, for example. Pinker describes language as “a good entrée into human nature” and says that “language has to be fine-tuned for the kinds of thoughts and the kinds of social relationships that humans want to share and negotiate with one another.” Think about it -the simple addition of a “please” or “thank you” can go a long way when asking something of someone.

Here at Communispace, we live and breathe our online communities, consistently keeping our members engaged, trying to establish a connection with every one of them. What makes our jobs a little more challenging, however, is that we’re not in-person moderators. We can’t connect with members face-to-face, read their body language, or pick up the phone and listen to any inflections in their voice. Communispace has a proven track record for uncovering insights within our online communities, but it requires a hypersensitivity for word choice.

In the book, Social by Social, the authors echo a similar point in saying “Community sites […] are all about creating a sense of ownership by the community, and the language you use is far and away the most important part of creating that. Get the tone and language right and people are much more likely to come; get it wrong and you can alienate people very, very quickly.”

The fact of the matter is that language and word choice are powerful, even in this fast paced, hyper-digital world that we live in. When a conversation lacks that element of face-to-face interaction, whether it’s talking with community members online or tweeting at a friend, it’s important to remember the art of word choice. So double-check the tone of your tweet, THINK TWICE BEFORE YOU HIT SEND ON THAT EMAIL, and make sure to call your grandmother, she’s still trying to understand this whole texting thing.

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