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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.
Back in 2003, I wrote a grad school paper that analyzed the flaws of e-mail communication: how our content and tone can lead to people getting a different meaning than what we intend – and how the results can be disastrous!
Now, that was back when we didn’t yet use handhelds to converse with friends and colleagues. We were still mainly using online Webmail or some kind of ‘e-mail client’ such as Outlook.
So we still hadn’t established so many of the conventions we now use to send words across the ether: No emoticons, shortcuts for txtng or little graphical additions to clarify our intent. We had to rely much more on the tone of our messages to ensure we got across the way we wanted.
What’s this got to do with the Save button?
Through much embarrassing trial-and-error of my own, I’ve learned something about e-mail: One should never fire off a hastily-typed message about something important right away.
Okay, maybe you’ve got one of those jobs where you barely have time to pee, let alone think through every important message before hitting Send. But really, even (and maybe, especially) you will benefit from making the Save button your friend.
Anyone who’s lost a long document because they didn’t save their changes can tell you that the Save button is aptly-named: it even saves your *ss if you’re working under a tight deadline!
Save is your friend, before you click Send…
The same goes for e-mail. Taking a few more seconds to review your message before clicking Send will help you catch more than just typos – you may also often find that you’ve forgotten to enter something critical that would really have helped them understand better. And if you’re like me, you may also realize that you’ve included far more info than they need or can use at that time.
So see if it works for you. Here’s how:
- Blast out your message, fingers a-flying.
- Click on Save (and minimize if you need privacy)
- Go get a tea or your chosen consumable.
- Come back and re-read, with a refreshed focus.
- Edit as needed. Then – and only then – click on Send.
After repeating these steps a few times, you may also find yourself reconsidering whether to send the message at all (really!). It could be that you actually don’t need to respond until you have more time or information. And after all, with all the info we don’t need that we all already receive, this could mean you’re doing someone a favour by not sending it.
Edmonton-Calder Conservative MLA Doug Elniski’s now-infamous Grade 9 graduation speech sure has given us an example this week of why it’s important to carefully choose both your words and the context in which you use them.
This guy got the message wrong on so many levels when he said – then posted on his blog for all to read – the following:
“Ladies, always smile when you walk into a room, there is nothing a man wants less than a woman scowling because he thinks he is going to get s–t for something and has no idea what.”
“Men are attracted to smiles, so smile, don’t give me that ‘treated equal’ stuff. If you want Equal, it comes in little packages at Starbucks.”
With my somewhat leftist and definitely feminist leanings, I could easily pile on and condemn this poor sap for going on record with such a backward message to young girls. But I think others have already done that quite adequately (here’s an example from Rabble.com). I would like to instead analyze his messaging from a more objective standpoint.
One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned as a plain language writer is that the message you think you’re sending and the one people actually get can be on polar opposite ends of the scale. I.e., the proverbial road to hell paved with good intentions.
Saying things plainly can get you into even more hot water. I’ve had lots of clients who, once they saw what their message ‘translated’ into in plain language, decided to delete the message altogether. And then there are those other times where what you do not say is just as telling as what you do say.
In Elniski’s case, what he says he was attempting to do was a take-off on a routine by a comedian which, in its own context, was likely taken with tongue planted firmly in cheek by its audience. So maybe he was trying to make some kind of connection by being all hip and plugged-in.
As my husband will tell all who’ll listen, when I’m walking around unsmiling in his proximity, it’s usually means he is in trouble. And with men and their fabled ‘need to fix things’ attitude (a la Mars and Venus theorist John Gray), he right away feels he must do something to fix my mood.
So okay, I kind of get what he means. And, in and of itself, the statement “Men are attracted to smiles” is in fact accurate though in this context, it begs the question of what we women are attracted to.
But his problem is that he took a message from one context and plunked it into a graduation address for grade nine boys and girls, many of whom likely didn’t get the comedic reference at all. And worse – perhaps again attempting to display his with-it ness – he posted the same message on his blog (which of course has since been taken down in the wake of the controversy).
Granted, the fact that he used this message singling out girls is inherently patronizing and sexist – I don’t disagree with that. But I think he meant well in how he tried to package what he said to make it relatable for young people. But he instead he lived out the lesson a wise person once told me: “When you’re in the hole, stop digging!”