Thursday, December 6, 2012

What the !.:);) Are You Trying to Say?

"A kiss is still a kiss," or so goes that old song "As Time Goes By."

I beg to differ. A kiss is no more just a kiss than a word is merely a word.

I didn't get around to demonstrating the varied nature of kisses, but I did attempt to explain the complex properties of a single word to Bart the other night, and I swear, I wasn't talking about "old." The word to which I was referring: "Thanks." My point was that when someone says "Thanks" and nothing more via email or text message or IM, you can't always take the word at face value because it can be spun in so many ways. Followed by an exclamation point, a period, a smiley face, a winky face or no punctuation at all, "Thanks" can take on subtly different meanings.


"Thanks!": Perhaps the most sincere expression of appreciation for one's time/patience/compliment/whatever. But there's also an element of finality to go along with the enthusiasm: Case Closed. Conversation: Over.

"Thanks.": All business -- and quite rare. If someone ends with a period, he or she has likely offered a more formal "Thank you."

"Thanks :)": Generally more open-ended than "Thanks!", and open to different interpretations, thanks (!?) to the tricky smiley face. A "smile" can simply be intended to underscore the spirit in which something is said, or it can be more calculating, carrying a tinge of passive aggression, as if to say, "I know I'm being sort of a bitch, but I say this with love -- and a smile." It depends on the context. I suspect that smiley faces are so overused in modern written communication (the kind the doesn't involve pens and pencils -- how old-fashioned!) because they're vague enough to hide behind, and outside of Grindr, Manhunt and online comment sections, where anonymity brings out the asshole in everyone, people are most comfortable when they aren't being too straightforward.

"Thanks ;)": There's an element of flirtation there. "Maybe I can thank you later in person?"

"Thanks": Leaving your simple expression of gratitude punctuation free is tantamount to saying, "I couldn't be bothered to even end the sentence."

My other point, the one that led to our great debate, was that in the context of gay-dating applications (like Grindr), if you approach someone with a compliment, and they respond with a mere "Thanks," all of the above still apply. In general, though, if he's interested in continuing the conversation or ever actually meeting you, he'd probably encourage it by writing more than one word.

Bart, who insisted that some people are probably too shy to write more than "Thanks," thought I was being overly analytical, coming up with conspiracy theories when one should usually just take what people say and write at face value, not reading more into it than what is said and written. That's like telling a psychologist not to try to read people's minds. I'm a journalist and a writer, I explained to him. I don't take anything at face value.

There is almost always subtext, hidden meanings and ulterior motives to be found in the things people say and write, even if they aren't deliberately put there. In a time when most of our daily communication isn't in person, we must look beyond body language to understand what people are really saying. ("Haha," to put another example out there, isn't equal to "LOL," which feels less sincere, is more about the person who wrote it than what the other one said, and often serves the same vague purpose as a smiley face.) The written words of a borderline illiterate person can still be loaded with meaning. If this weren't the case, I'd have so much less to write about, and I'd have no book!

Of course, as a writer and journalist, I've been trained to look at language differently than the average person (and I don't mean "average" pejoratively, but rather in the sense of those who aren't conditioned to think of a word as being more than just a word). In New York City, most of my close friends were fellow writers and journalists, and we could spend hours sitting around analyzing a single sentence, searching for something more than the words on the page, or screen.

There's not always more there, but to communicate with people and not look for trends and tendencies, semantic and syntactic clues, to overlook cultural linguistic dynamics, is to underestimate the power of language and human nature and perhaps miss what people are actually saying whenever they say anything. We reveal so much about ourselves by what we say/write and the way we say/write it. No, in written communication, 1+1 doesn't always equal 2, but one can still draw conclusions that hold up and make sweeping generalizations to which there are obviously exceptions, based on experience and personal observations.

One of my personal observations that night was that Bart was being very naive, though he made some valid points. After taking offense at being called "naive" ("Im old. You're naive. We're even," I joked), he suggested that I was simplifying people by narrowing them down to patterns of behavior. I argued that I was just reporting what I see and read. The modern texting/email/IM era has dumbed down communication in many ways, and it's dumbed down many people in the process.

That said, I think people can still be very complex and often eloquent when communicating. (Though it's harder for the younger generation because they've had less practice, and even when they're face-to-face with friends, they're often too busy having dumbed down conversations on their smart phones to engage the people who are physically with them). But written communication generally isn't what it used to be in the days when people were more likely to speak and write in multiple sentences, and people wrote letters instead of sending emails and text messages. Because we had to make a physical effort to mail letters, if we communicated with people from a distance, we did so because we truly cared.

In this age when predictive text does so much of the work, we've become lazy communicators. But there are still patterns that people fall into without necessarily even realizing it, signposts that develop. Sometimes choosing how to follow "Thanks" or whether to follow it at all isn't even something that one consciously thinks about. There's an automatic response that correlates to how the writer feels. It becomes as second nature as oral communication, though still more loaded because we can't enhance and complement what we write with body-language clues or pitch alterations, which provided a humorous running gag for Wendie Malick on last week's season four premiere of Hot in Cleveland. The words "people like us," or "would you look at that," when written, can be interpreted in so many ways, which might be why people like Bart -- but not Veronica Chase! -- would rather not even try to digger deeper than just the words.

I wasn't sure if Bart bought any of it, but when I got home he sent me a message:

"Thank you! Had a great time, and a good challenge!"

Perfectly communicated, I thought, as I rolled over and went to sleep. And for once, no over-analysis was necessary!
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