Our last post dealt with bulk, unsolicited – i.e., SPAM – messages pretending to be from banks. Since then, I have come across an additional form of SPAM that is relevant to my interest in plain language: that which claims to be from individuals we know, and which comes to us ‘from’ them via their mail or Twitter account.
These new examples show that just because something’s plain, doesn’t mean we trust it. Other elements always come into play in how we receive the message.
A fish of a different odour…
Both messages resulted from someone hacking into those real people’s actual accounts, then pretending to be that person. So they looked to actually be from an individual I know, not a faceless sender in a large company.
Both are from colleagues in other cities: people I have not yet met in-person, but whom I know from years as fellow plain-language practitioners. I’ve written to both of these folks several times over the years, and participated with them on discussion groups. So, I know how they sound when they ‘talk’ online.
So when I saw the notes ‘from’ them this past week, I knew something was up. They were both clear, so no problem understanding them. They both used short words and a conversational tone. Again, totally plain language.
But what made me smell fish was the tone of voice and choice of words each of them used.
Message #1: The ‘help me get back home’ scam
The first, much longer message was ‘from’ one of them who lives about five hours away. Except it said she was out of the country, and that she had been mugged. She was writing me because, left with no way to get back home, she was hoping I would wire her some money … okay, you already see the commonality between this and other SPAM notices.
But before I even got to the request for money, I already sensed it was a bogus message. First, the context was all wrong. I’d only expect to get a longish message from this person if it was about our mutual work in our professional association. The other thing that tipped me off was the first line, which said ‘How are you doing today? I know this might surprise you, I apologize for not informing you about my travel to England for a Conference…’
Knowing this person in the professional capacity – and knowing her to be an excellent writer – I wouldn’t have expected her to sound like this. Clear and direct or not – I knew I couldn’t trust the message to be authentic; the first few lines sounded ‘canned.’
Message #2: The ‘someone’s saying stuff about you’ lure
The other message was shorter, and sent to me via Twitter. It was from an Australian colleague this time, one with whom I’ve corresponded over the past month or so. It was a direct message to me that said ‘Someone has been spreading rumors about you’ and gave a TinyUrl link.
Again, it looks like a normal tweet, and its meaning is crystal clear. But it still smells like fish. Again, the tone is all wrong for the context. (I was also surprised to see an Aussie spelling ‘rumor’ without a ‘u’ – but that’s a fiddly editor’s matter most normal readers might not notice.) So I did not click the link.
In both cases, even though the message had come directly from these people, I emailed both right away and learned that their email and Twitter accounts had indeed been hacked into.
The point of regurgitating even more SPAM (and of mixing canned meat with smelly fish metaphors) …?
Plain language writers sometimes need to counter the common perception that ‘plain language’ means a ‘dumbed down’ form of language that most people would find patronizing, because it boils the subtleties and beauty of language into monotonous-sounding, Dick and Jane-style narratives.
These two examples struck me in how they were so clear and direct – in fact, overly so – and it was because they didn’t fit with either the senders’ typical tone of voice or the context of my relationship with them that I knew they were fakes.
And similarly, our readers won’t trust what we write if it still does not sound authentic. And, if it doesn’t sound authentic, then it was not truly written with the reader’s needs in mind.
True plain language writing only does its job of communicating effectively if it also captures the human element with the right tone, context and choice of words. Thus, it embodies much more than short words and sentences.