Writing Messages Brings Hidden Risks

If you wouldn’t write it and sign it, don’t say it.
– Earl Wilson, columnist (1907-1987)

Wilson was saying that by writing and signing something it would be “cast in stone” to be available for scrutiny by anyone at any time. It could be used, if necessary, as evidence in court.

His advice, therefore, could be taken to mean that you shouldn’t say anything that you might regret later because you might find yourself in court or that could be held against you in some other way. Speak with the same level of caution that you would use if you wrote your message.

While the advice is valid, people write all kinds of thing today without signing them. Most of this is done via the internet where people leave comments on blogs without identifying themselves or they use pseudonyms in chatrooms or in internet communities. Those who write their messages and mail them by surface mail (sometimes by email) without any identification most often intend its content to be considered a threat.

What Wilson did not address in his quote, something I believe that everyone should know about personal messages, is the difference in effect that a written message has on people as opposed to a spoken message.

There are those who argue that written messages do not convey the tone of voice, facial language, body language or speech inflections that people use in spoken messages. Spoken messages, they claim, convey a fuller version of what is intended as compared to a written message.

We could conclude that phone messages fall somewhere in between because they can include voice clues, including emotions. Cell phones today can even include face to face chat using video, so phone messages today could be moving in the direction of face to face personal messages in the sense of conveying a full version of what is intended.

However, people in western countries are so unaccustomed to receiving personal messages on paper today (other than those mass produced on a printer) that many tend to view a written message as bad news or a personal criticism. If the message on paper was written by hand, using a pen, then it is automatically viewed with great suspicion.

If many people get a written message from their boss, for example, they look for something bad, some criticism or bad news. If they can’t find the negative message within, they will often invent something that was not intended by the writer. Whatever a reader invents is almost always negative, rarely positive.

Consequently, training courses in the writing of personal written messages today emphasize that the writer must make positive points–particularly at the beginning and the end of the message–in order to start the reader in a good frame of mind and have him finish reading on a positive note. In a longer note, a positive point or two in the middle is advised as well.

In earlier years of the internet, smileys were invented to account for the lack of facial expression of the writer. These were followed by graphic emoticons we see today. As these are not available as tools in a message written on paper, the writer must take particular care to surround anything negative about the message with positive points or observations.

Failure to overemphasize the positive in a paper message that includes anything negative might result in the reader quitting his job, ending a friendship or spreading some pretty nasty stuff around listener-friendly circles about the writer.

The easiest advice to follow is to keep everything on paper positive and reserve negative messages for face to face encounters. This may seem artificial, but it’s the best way to ensure that the reader will not misinterpret a message, with sometimes unhappy consequences.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Cause and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, striving to put a positive tip on the end of every pen.
Learn more at http://billallin.com

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