June 19, 2024

Picture This: Why Communicating Through Text Is Challenging

Back in the 1970s, a researcher named Albert Mehrabian explored how we communicate. He discovered that when a dialogue between two people involves more than simple data (“What time’s the meeting?” “8:15.” “OK.”), and contains information about feelings, moods, or attitudes, words are trusted only 7% of the time, vocal tonality 38% of the time, and facial expression and body language 55% of the time. Now where does that leave the text-based communicator?


Based on what Mehrabian found, communicating by text or e-mail is OK as long as the message relays simple data. But if a text thread wanders off into office politics, or worse, rumors, misunderstanding is highly likely to occur. If you are trying to convey attitude or feelings, it is going to be difficult to do this with any clarity.

Emoticons to the rescue

From Wikipedia:

“An emoticon is a pictorial representation of a facial expression using punctuation marks and letters, usually written to express a person’s feelings or mood. Emoticons are often used to alert a responder to the tenor or temper of a statement, and can change and improve interpretation of plain text; emoticons for a smiley face :-) and sad face :-( appear in the first documented use in digital form.”

Wikipedia goes on to tell us that “A New York Times transcript from an Abraham Lincoln speech written in 1862 contains “(applause and laughter ;-)“; there is some debate as to whether it is a typo, a legitimate punctuation construct, or an emoticon.”

Emoticons serve a very useful purpose. Whether we know it or not, we throw them into our texts because we know there is a high likelihood of our true feelings or attitudes being misunderstood.

“Did u c Sallyz blck eye :D?”

Now a black eye is usually perceived as negative. This person’s use of a “big smile” certainly portrays attitude.

“Everybody out to the gallows for lunch :).” The sarcasm is indicated by a smiley face after the rather stark statement.

“Sales meeting at 5:00 in Bob’s office. :(” The writer has divulged his or her displeasure with this upcoming appointment. Without the emoticon, it’s just data.

So here are some hints on good intra- and inter-office communication:

  • If clarity is your goal, then get up and see the person face-to-face, taking advantage of 100% of Mehrabian’s communication pie.
  • If that’s not possible, then at least pick up the phone and call the person. Your tonality layered with your words gives you a good chance of communicating your attitude and feelings on the subject. With this method, you still have 45% of the pie in play.
  • If you’re truly reduced to text-based communication, use emoticons wisely. They can clarify or obfuscate any words. Good luck with that. 😉


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