The tyranny of the written word

I’ve been using the Internet now for around 20 years, and it’s changed beyond belief. Back in the 90’s, the easiest way to get online in the UK was to use something like Compuserv, Demon or, in my case, AOL UK. AOL was a unique proposition – it was a gateway to the Internet, founded upon AOL’s own software and content. In short, you had to use AOL’s god awful browser, but you also had access to a large amount of custom content and also the infamous AOL chatrooms.

It was here that I started to learn how to communicate by the written word alone – I spent a couple of years lurking in a particular chat room, and became well known by the regulars, even meeting a few of them offline and being a witness at a wedding between two of them. It was my first real exposure to people well outside of my own social circle (e.g. my college, church and immediate set of friends) and with it came a lot of very harsh lessons.

There were people there who were happily married, bi- or homosexual, some elderly, some young but never younger than 16, some divorced, some never married, some depressed, some happy – in short it was a melting pot of life experiences which made it a particularly treacherous place to be from an emotional perspective. At the time I didn’t really know any different – I was 19 years old, and not particularly worldly-wise, and so it will be no surprise at all that I very quickly learned to put my foot in it with ease.

I never did anything intentionally, and to some degrees I was very naive in how I communicated. I would say something that I felt was comforting, only to be told that someone took it another way entirely and that I was terrible for having said it. In other cases, I would use a word that I had heard somewhere else and then be accused of being racist or bigoted.

It was there that I learned to communicate via instant message, and it was also the time when I learned to type *really* quickly – at times, I had several chat windows on the go and had to switch between them quickly to try to avoid being accused of being ignorant or worse.

Coming out of the AOL bubble and onto a more mainstream Internet service provider did away with those specific chat channels, and I never actually ventured into any other chat rooms. However, I did move into business and started having to send emails as part of my day to day job. This opened up a fresh world of hell, as the conversations slowed right down – instead of having to respond every few seconds, or being able to add clarity to a message I’d just sent, I had to wait hours, but more likely days, to get a response to something. Given the time lag in this, I had to make absolutely sure that my initial email was as clear as it could be.

I quickly learned how to structure an email, how to make use of white space to make my meaning more clear, while keeping the message as concise as possible. That said, I did sometimes and still do write essays which made reading the emails all the harder, but I just need to occasionally do a full brain dump and get everything out of my head and onto paper (or the email, as the case may be).

But with the advent of the email came a new and even more deadly problem – it was very easy for people to add additional recipients to the email, and what was carefully crafted for a specific recipient, suddenly became exposed to a wider audience who were never considered as part of the original composition. In short, I’ve experienced all sorts of trouble where people have forwarded an email chain that contained sensitive information in it onto people who shouldn’t have seen it in the first place.

All of these experiences have had major impacts on the way I communicate, and my written communication nowadays is light-years away from how I communicated at the age of 18.


I do still make mistakes, always inadvertently. A lot of the problem is to do with the transport mechanism, e.g. the written word. Words are magical and mysterious things, none more so than the words contained in the English language where the same word on paper can mean very different things. Take right for instance – this can mean to take a right hand turn, or it can mean that someone is correct or, used informally, it can be used to break a silence or start to take action (right, let’s do this). What helps with English is the context in which the word appears, but even then it can be confusing – take the right turn can mean to take the right turning in a directional sense, or it can mean to take the correct turn which might even be left! It’s no wonder that people who learn English as a foreign language get so worked up about our crazy language.

What’s missing is more than just situational context; what is missing is the way in which the word is conveyed, and the written word excludes such things as intonation and pitch of voice, body language, facial expression and eye contact. You might argue that you can litter your correspondence with smileys, but too many and people will think you’re a bit weird.

Without hearing someone’s voice, it’s difficult to determine whether the person speaking is angry, upset, depressed, happy or some other emotion. I’d argue that intonation and pitch are the biggest indicators of emotion, more so than body language or facial expressions which both only add additional context over and above intonation and pitch.

But why am I writing all of this? Well, it’s because I think I put my foot in it earlier and wasn’t able to add sufficient auditory cues as to my message. As a result, I think I’ve managed to upset someone very dear to me and I’m hoping that that hasn’t happened. If it has, then I’m going to say sorry now in the hope that I’ll be able to speak to the person later on in the hope that they will talk to me and understand my true intentions.

In the meantime, I still have to guard against the tyranny of the written word – it’s not easy, but I improve with every day.

The tyranny of the written word

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