Friday, October 3, 2014

Writing on texting

DSC08656 (902x1300)A virtual organization and an expat’s long-distance friendships means my face-to-face meetings and close conversations are sadly infrequent.  So a lot of my business and personal communication is, by necessity, done in writing.  I seldom send anything by postal mail unless it involves requires a real signature on a contract or a significant event, relying mostly on emails for everyday keeping-in-touch. 

For more immediate thoughts, I rely on a messaging app, generally via phone text, Facebook, Skype, or WhatsApp.  I like being able to poke a note directly into someone’s hand, where I’ll get a rapid acknowledgement that they’ve seen it and (often) an immediate answer to a simple question.

WP_20141008_030 (1300x682)But one response begets another, and exchanges quickly turn conversational.   When light and casual, it’s a nice measured way to catch up on gossip and bind a friendship. However, when talk turns to serious or difficult topics, things break down badly.  Misunderstandings occur more frequently in text conversations than in any other medium I use; people’s attitudes and feelings are distorted and my biases and worries sound more pronounced.  And, too often, I end up tediously spending precious face-time resolving the misperceptions.

text messagingA few others have also commented on the inadequacy of text messaging for sorting out strong emotions or confrontational questions.  I’ve learned to be more self-aware when approaching that furrowed brow / tensing gut feeling while messaging,  If I don’t stgep back altogether (Let’s come back to this later when I see you?), I have adopted a few guidelines to be mindful of:

  • ‘Seen’ means a message has been received by the device, not that it has been read nor considered by the recipient.  Above all, silence doesn’t signify that you’re being ignored or that s message has met with disapproval.
  • Remember that texts are time- and location- stamped; they set an unintended context that can change the meaning of words.
  • When messages are stark and blunt, they can evoke strong emotions.  Do take a moment and don't react to texts that feel provocative.
  • Humor simply doesn’t work in most text conversations, even when punctuated with emoticons.
  • Avoid having multiple streams in a conversation. The juxtaposition of comments in one thread with responses from another can lead to bad, bad misinterpretations.  Stick to one conversation, pause occasionally, and sync up regularly: make transitions obvious.
  • Check the temperature periodically and give clear signals.  80% of normal communication (tone, expression, gesture, prosody) is lost in texts, and you can get way out of bounds without realizing it.
  • Avoid head-down mad-dash typing when feeling strongly.  It’s hard to keep up with, and answers fly off the screen without being read if you don’t stop and look up regularly.
  • Let the conversation pull you rather than pushing it in the direction you want it to go.  Stop to trade control of the conversation.
  • Watch out for accidently inserting homophones when using voice-recognition (hands-free) transcription, and recognize that cross-cultural differences in vocabulary and nuance can be deadly.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Cross-cultural education

WP_20140927_014 (1300x729)The NS to Amsterdam was filled with young  and old people, couples and friends, stacked high at 7 am on a misty weekend morning.  Muziekfeest of voetbal? I asked the girl across from me.  “De laatste dag van de maand,” she told me, the last day to use summer discount coupons, and everyone was headed to north for a day out.  She showed me her design website and talked me through her landscape photographs.

WP_20140927_008 (1134x1258)We didn’t hit track works until den Bosch, where we all exited for the snelbus to Utrecht, spiraling up the stairs with luggage or children in hand.  I was running early, so the delay provided more chance to see the countryside and chat with the seatmates.


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I caught up with reading the weekend papers, the FT questioned the purpose of design museums (but I still like them) and devoted it’s magazine to Parisian foods.  The Shrink and Sage asked whether we should stop moaning  (Okay if it is intermittent, well-founded, and mutually shared with a friend). The NYTimes had the more intriguing question though: Schools should be safe, but learning should be dangerous: Should teachers and curriculums include provocative topics and ideas that students must react to?

It seems like it’s good to be challenged and broadened in a safe space: a bit like having your mind indirectly vaccinated through encounters with subversive literature and experimental theater.  And, if not in the schools, where should children learn how to interpret and respond to the many philosophies and practices that they will encounter later in life?  Home, church, on the street, when-it-happens?

WP_20140808_002 (1300x678)I thought about applying the idea to something more practical: understanding people in other countries.

In the 60’s, we studied cultures in the 60’s: culture and tradition in social studies and language classes.  People from Peru wore embroidered red dresses and wide-brimmed hats; people from Paris ate snails (we made a batch) and rode bicycles (It’s a bit like Life in the UK testing.)  In later decades this gave over to promoting diversity and multiculturalism: study of emerging political and social voices through literature and current events, building awareness of minorities and post-colonial guilt.

WP_20140927_004 (885x1300)But none of it really prepares you for actual encounters with people from another culture. I was fortunate to have been on the Experiment in International Living: a summer in Switzerland at 17, living on a farm. You come to understand how everyday things get done and how people think differently about social and political institutions. Its been true throughout my life since.  The Dutch experiences in World War II are not written in our history books: I needed to talk with people about their grandfather’s stories of hardship and hiding during the Occupation to really understand.

But we can’t send students across the world to experience other cultures.  How can we give them provocative experiences of another culture to react to and learn from?  Back in the day, some people had Pen Pals, overseas friends that they would exchange letters with.  Technology could WP_20140806_007 (1300x729)potentially update the idea: we can give students a telepresence with immersive visual and audio links through Glass and other lifelogging tools.  What if a live hour of touring home or community, going shopping, or hanging out with friends could be made available, shared, discussed and compared?

The key to understanding lies in the experience of ordinary life for an individual person today; we can use our tools to do this better than when I was growing up.

The plane was winging into Southampton by noon, I’d planned for a walk along the Thames if the day turned sunny.  It was, and I did: relaxed conversations beneath the willows, a pint of ale, watching autumn arriving.

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