As someone working in communications I thank my lucky stars that English is my mother tongue. This was put into stark relief recently when I encountered a wonderful letter from an aspiring screenwriter Robert Pirosh in a feature in a Sunday newspaper. The missive dates back to 1934 and not only is it the best covering letter I’ve ever read, it also sums up everything that’s great about the English language. I would have employed him on the spot.
Luckily for us Brits, English has become the de facto global language of business. Good news for us, but this is perhaps not a view held by vast swathes of school children for whom English is not their first language. By all accounts the idiosyncrasies of English, and indeed the English, mean our language is almost certainly trickier to master than other widely spoken languages, including Spanish and French.
English has become this country’s greatest cultural export and it’s ever-evolving. While I’m always delighted to see new words, such as the delightfully expressive “omnishambles” enter our lexicon, I’m also often disappointed by the reductionist ways in which our wonderful language is deployed.
The internet has become the primary vehicle for much of our communication and as broadband speeds increase so do our options. However, most business communication is still invariably conducted over email. While the written word is an ideal medium for long form communication, the brevity of many emails can be open to misinterpretation. When having to engage on what may be a contentious issue it is always more sensible to pick up the phone or log in to Skype. Sadly, in the fast-moving world of PR, it is often quicker and easier to fire off a short email, which can be misunderstood or misconstrued, which can then lead to all sorts of unpleasantness.
Online and email communications can be fraught with these unintended slights. I’m sure most of us will have experienced colleagues, clients, even friends, who can come across as brusque or even impolite over email, but are entirely charming in person or over the phone.
Context is of course all important and despite the richness of the English language, it’s hard to convey the nuances of meaning in a short email. This becomes even more challenging when communicating with a non-native speaker, or even to an English speaker who does not share cultural reference points. While a meta-meaning may be immediately apparent in an email circulated internally, the English sense of humour (for instance) doesn’t necessarily translate to other nationalities. This is particularly the case with those who are more familiar with Benny Hill than, say, The Office.
To avoid unnecessary confusion we’ve seen the development of a whole new lexicon for web-based communication which provides at-a-glance context for our emotional state. For example, acronyms, such as LOL, convey amusement and this is further reinforced by emoticons, icons which stand as a visual shorthand for intended meaning 🙂 . These devices can be deployed to counter any potential ambiguity and, hopefully, prevent the recipient feeling like they’re in the digital doghouse.
However, I would contend there are limits. Acronyms, like soulless model numbers, seem to be much loved in business circles and navigating your way round a corporate website or brochure can sometimes feel like a military exercise. If it takes me longer to Google what an acronym actually stands for than it would for me to read the phrase in plain English, then I’m afraid that’s not time well spent.
Unless you know someone well, it’s also probably best to keep acronyms connoting emotional state at the lower end of hysteria spectrum. If someone suggests they are ROFLing (rolling on the floor laughing) at a mild witticism, this could be a concern in a business partner. I’m fairly sure this type of behaviour would be frowned upon in most workplaces.
At this point you may be asking does this man really judge a purported ROFLer to be a faker and, as such, fundamentally untrustworthy? Well I could answer that with a full paragraph to explain my reasoning in detail, but I’m very busy so I’ll have to leave it at a “winky face” 😉
As an ex-teacher I do have very real concerns about the dumbing down of the English language, but I will accept it has to evolve to suit the context. We all seem to have less and less time on our hands. The days of the essayist may be numbered, but if you can distil your argument into a blog post then why not? While I’m not the greatest fan of the emoticon in business communications, if it’s a choice between that and potentially upsetting a client or colleague, I’ll choose the former. That said, you’re unlikely to find me boarding the Roflcopter anytime soon.
Anyway, nearly time for a client call so I need to blog off. I’ll post this to Facebook, if you’ve enjoyed it please do feel free to “Like” it… I won’t judge you.