On being ... tone deaf

By Ingrid Sapona

The other day someone called me snarky in an e-mail. I was quite upset by that. It wasn’t that I took offense to it being called snarky (though, truth be told, I’ve always found it a pretty loaded word). What bothered me was the realization that I must have said something -- inadvertently -- that caused a friend to label me as snarky.

It all started quite innocently. That morning I sent what was meant to be a playful e-mail to a friend. The caption of it was: hey slacker dude… I know -- in some bars those would be fightin’ words. But I can explain…

The day before, this friend had mentioned that, though he dutifully adjusted his watch and various other clocks to reflect the changeover to daylight saving time, Monday morning he was an hour late for work because he forgot to change his alarm clock. So the next day I was (obviously) teasing him by calling him a slacker dude. (He’s most certainly not a slacker. Come on -- a slacker wouldn’t even realize they’re late for work, much less comment on it!)

My “slacker dude” e-mail prompted a rather curt reply that started with: “Don’t be snarky”, and was followed by an explanation that he didn’t oversleep again and that, in fact, he got to work early that morning because traffic was light. (Hardly slacker dude talk, don’t you agree?) There were a few other equally short sentences but, to tell you the truth, I don’t remember them, as I pretty much stopped reading after snarky.

I felt just awful. What I intended as a light-hearted poking of fun was clearly taken the wrong way. I felt compelled to write back, but I thought it best to tread lightly so as not to further insult or upset anyone. I overcame the temptation to make any quips (like a crack about his getting up on the wrong side of the bed that morning) or any commentary about the mood it sounded like he was in. And, I desperately wanted to avoid sounding like I took exception to being called snarky, as I didn’t want to offer him any actual evidence of snarkiness.

So, I carefully crafted another e-mail apologizing and saying I didn’t mean to be snarky. I closed by wishing him a good day and said I hoped no other punks would irritate him, as one irritation a day is enough. As I sent it, I hoped I had struck the right tone.

His subsequent e-mail put me at ease, as he started with: “Did I sound like I was in a bad mood? I’m not.” Clearly, he understood that I took his first e-mail as a sign that, in fact, he wasn’t in a great mood. He went on to explain, in effect, that he had just been teasing me. He also apologized because he realized (from the delicateness of my response, no doubt) that I was upset by his earlier remark about being snarky. Later that day, rather than risk further misunderstandings like those engendered by our earlier e-mail conversation, I phoned him to say hello.

Afterwards, I was thinking about that little misunderstanding and I realized that it’s happened to me before -- many times -- with e-mails. For you see, one of my biggest problems with e-mail is tone -- or, more accurately -- the inability to discern the writer’s tone. And yet, when I read an e-mail, I almost always infer a tone of some sort.

Surely you know what I mean -- and come on -- you must admit you’ve done it too. I know others do it because I’ve had many conversations with friends who’ve told me about feeling confused or upset by something someone said in an e-mail, and yet, when they read a particular e-mail to me to get my opinion on it, I don’t necessarily “hear” the same thing they did.

I think it’s a natural thing to do because e-mail has become a way of “conversing” -- such exchanges are really electric dialogues -- and we all know that with conversations it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. (Surely my folks weren’t the only parents heard to have uttered the rebuke, “Don’t use that tone with me (young lady)!”)

I don’t know the solution to this ever-present chance of offending or being offended. For the most part, I like e-mail -- I find it useful for staying in touch with folks (not to mention an integral way of doing business). And yet, every e-mail carries with it the potential for the type of misunderstanding my friend and I encountered.

Of course, over time, maybe this problem will sort itself out. Maybe, with the evolution of text-messaging shorthand and as Gen X’ers become parents, we’ll see the emergence of messages like: DUTTWM (YL or YM)! Then again, maybe not -- maybe electronic communication will make verbal communication so passé that the idea of “tone of voice” will disappear altogether.

Until then, I’m working on being more tone deaf…

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona


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