When LOL meant Laugh out Loud or…does your co-worker really get what you mean?

Team conflict Flame email

It was once said that “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”  Attribution debatable. Whoever said it – they were on the money!

Ping, Post, IM, Slack, Whats – appening?

We’ve been communicating in the workplace using text based mediums for a very long time now. The evolution in work-related communication from letters, telegrams, faxes and internal memos took a quantum leap in speed of passage when the first email was sent sometime in the early 1970’s.  Of course, since then, we all started texting and now we can ping, post, IM, slack, FB message and WhatsApp to our heart’s content.

Naturally, the way in which we communicate – our use of language, punctuation, emojis, acronyms and levels of formality has changed and adapted along the way.  It remains the case that in several professions and for certain types of transactions, formal correspondence by way of letter (albeit pdf’d and emailed to the recipient), is the preferred method of communication.  For most of us though, our work is transacted through a mixture of face-to-face discussion, telephone, email, video-conference, instant messaging and the use of web-based ‘collaboration’ platforms.  The constant with many of these mediums is the reliance on text or text-related forms (think use of capitals, underlining, emoji, colour, font) to get our message across.

The problem with this is that sometimes, what we meant, and what the other person thinks we meant, are not the same thing.

Lol…I misinterpreted your email 😧

Depending upon your age, you may remember when Lol meant Lots of Love!  Of course, we all got on board with Laugh out Loud and have watched as its meaning has gradually morphed again.  This became apparent to me some time ago as I made suggestions to my tween-aged son about an activity he and I could do together (that I thought would be fun), and he responded in a rather light-hearted but dismissive manner, “Lol. No.”

Apparently by then, Lol meant something akin to Lack of Laughter and my son tells me now that you can pretty much include it anywhere as a kind of ‘softening word’.  Amazingly, Buzzfeed attribute 12 possible meanings to the acronym and that was in 2013!  Imagine how many there could be now.

My point is that, without the extra cues like tone, demeanour and context of a face to face conversation, there may be some out there thinking that everyone is really still laughing out loud.

Emails, texts and instant messages at work

In our work with clients, we frequently hear two or more completely different interpretations of the same email, text or post.  Research suggests that as the person at the keyboard or smart phone, we are overly confident that our readers will correctly interpret our meaning and tone – be it sadness, humour, seriousness or sarcasm.  As the writer, we ‘hear’ ourselves in the message and give it a ‘richness’ that is often not heard by our reader.

Unfortunately, as readers, we are less accurate in interpreting the message as it was intended.  Somewhat surprisingly, this appears to be true whether or not the message came from a complete stranger or close personal friend.

So, my top tips for responding to an email, text or message at work that bothers you

  • Do not respond immediately with a ‘flaming’ message of your own.  We all know why, just wait for a bit and cool down;
  • Consider phoning or talking to the writer, to clarify and talk through the issues at hand.  Ask questions about what they meant and really listen to and consider their answers.  It may be that the message you heard is not the one they intended to send.  This simple act of calm discussion can avoid back and forward emailing which often degenerates into a slanging match with the audience watching from the ‘cc’ panel.  Nobody comes out of these exchanges looking very dignified;
  • If there are no confidentiality or privacy problems, talk to your manager or a trusted colleague to get an outside perspective on what has been written.  Try to choose someone who you think will really be objective and not someone who is likely to immediately take your side or make you more upset; and/or
  • Make an assessment about whether this is something you need to do something about, or whether it is a blip you are willing to let slide.  Of course there are incidents that are too important to go without addressing and you should consider the options available at your workplace if this is the case.  If it is a pattern of behaviour, then intervention through your manager or by way of mediation might be suitable.  But sometimes, simply responding in a mature, polite and business-like tone to a somewhat aggressive sounding piece of correspondence from someone can see you taking the professional moral high ground and often, your sender on the other end will be shamed into following your lead.

Give it a try.  If that doesn’t work, perhaps give us a call.  We are always happy to talk about options. Lol. 😉