Interpreting Tone & the Written Word

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The single biggest problem with communicating on a text-based forum site such as this, is the fact that the extent of what medium is available for that purpose is the written word. 

This means that obvious satire isn't interpreted as obvious satire, but instead taken literally.  Perhaps there's some latent or overt autism involved in the general failure to appreciate that level of nuance -- and doubtlessly there is, given the nature of this website -- but the written word is doubly predisposed towards this species of misinterpretation because of the absence of vocal inflection and subjective ambiguity inherent in the meaning of word choice. 

But what is vocal inflection? Here's a sentence to help you think about the issue:

"I didn't say he kicked his dog."

Try reading that sentence placing emphasis on each single word, and consider how the meaning changes. 

I didn't say he kicked his dog.

--But someone else might have said that. 

I didn't say he kicked his dog.

--Def. no dog kicking. 

I didn't say he kicked his dog.

--But I might have implied it... and perhaps I was.  (I was.)

I didn't say he kicked his dog.

--But his girlfriend totally did.

I didn't say he kicked his dog.

--Not kicking, but def. other animal abuse. 

I didn't say he kicked his dog.

--Not his dog, but maybe the girlfriend's dog. 

I didn't say he kicked his dog.

--He kicked the cat across the room like an errant soccer ball, however. 

See the point?

The other problem is word choice.

We all react to words in different ways.  Some people are easily offended by some words, others less so; and we all have subjectively varying connotations to words, especially when used in some form of sequence.  A very direct sentence may be meant to read for clarity, but at least some easily excitable readers may interpret it as aggressive.  An indirect or circuitous sentence may be meant to soften the impact of an otherwise harsh blow, but it comes across as prevaricating and disingenuous rather than as kind as possible.  This happens because of the baggage we bring to interpreting the meaning of the written word, sand that baggage is why people argue about what words mean for a living.  

I don't have a clear solution; other than to set forth things that should NOT be done, in any circumstance.

The first thing to avoid is reading the worst, or most uncharitable meaning into something for any purpose.  Maybe someone posted an ironic thread which may have literally involved some name calling, but the thread itself was beyond obviously satire.  You'd have to be autistic to interpret that as bullying or harassment, and if you are autistic, then you probably need to spend some time considering how literal interpretations of things and your propensity to do that may well make you not suited for interpreting the meaning of obviously satirical posts. 

The second thing to do is to avoid reading meaning into something that isn't there.  Just because someone's tone seems to you to be "angry" or whatever, doesn't mean that it is.  People are usually pretty direct in terms of how they express anger in online written text.  They CAPITALIZE ALL LETTERS, or IMPOSE OVERLY EXCESSIVE EMPHASIS.   These things are dead give-aways, sometimes.  Other times not.  But a subtle jab isn't an indication of anger, so don't react as such... just makes you look excitable and emotionally illiterate. 

The third thing to avoid is overly-rigid, literal interpretations of what is said.  The "burn down your house with lemons" meme from DDO comes to mind.  Obviously everyone here knows that's a meme, because it's physically impossible to burn down someone's house with lemons.  But if someone threatened to burn down someone else's house in a mafia game?  Is that a "threat" in violation of the so called Code of Conduct.  Under an autistically literal interpretation, yes.  But to anyone not plagued by one or more cognitive deficits, absolutely not.  There is room for ostentation, obnoxiousness, and the like; within the rules of any reasonably written code of conduct, because these things are human nature. 


drafterman
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You're really defensive about not kicking this dude's dog. Need to confess something?

Joking aside, this is a great post. I admit I'm sometimes guilty of choosing a less than charitable interpretation of someone's words in deciding how to respond. It is a very subtle form of a Straw Man. I'm glad you brought it up because I think this is advice that everyone here can take to heart. I know I will.
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--> @coal
This is actually quite a fascinating post and I am glad you brought this up. I'm a language nerd myself and am always fascinated that a change in emphasis can totally change the meaning of a sentence or phrase. I always try to be careful about how my typed words may be interpreted by others.  
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Autism is not a cognitive defect. Virtuoso is autistic. You should seriously stop using that word as an insult. Einstein and Mozart had it.
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I should add that these issues are not limited to forums.  It's in emails between attorneys and business-people, too.  

People fill in the gaps between your written words and your tone with their subjective perception of who you are. This is kind of why there is a lot of importance of having a good reputation.

For example, RM assumed that I was using autistic as an insult, because he perceives me to be some menacing force to be contended with that is the alpha of the DDO elite, or some other conspiracy nonsense. 

He also assumed that because I have had frank disagreements with Virt on things, that I am intentionally insulting Virt.  That interpretation is a reflection of exactly the problem I was referring above: easily excitable people tend to read meaning into words that is not there, and is not meant to be there; because of their proclivity to interpret what people say in the least charitable way possible. 

In reality, being autistic means you don't pick up on certain things.  We're all somewhat autistic when it comes to reading written words, because we can't see inside the writer's head.  That is why the three rules of interpretation, detailing things to avoid doing, are so important.  How many conflicts are the result of simple miscommunication?  Worse, what is the miscommunication's genesis? 

Typically, it's "you said one thing" and "I understood something else."

The british are the absolute worst at this.  There was a meme from a decade or so ago to the effect of a british supervisor and an american subordinate, where the british supervisor says something like "I would appreciate it if you could get your report completed by this Friday."  The American understood that to mean "It would be appreciated but is not mandatory."  The Brit meant it as "Turn the report in by friday, or else."  The American blamed the brit for failing to communicate effectively.  
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Coal you are absolutely fucking pathetic and should back off from me.

I meant that in the friendliest tone but I mean every word.
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Go ahead, click that flag. Prove your theory wrong.
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Coal, you are a homosexual, you also happen to be unbelievably terrible at producing quality posts.

Much like your comment on autism, this was such a friendly remark on the unrelated fact that you're homosexual.
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Don't trigger others if you want to be treated with respect.
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It must be your Canadian interpretation that's offending you.
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I do not give a single shit if I get banned, I will make sure to point out the pure hypocrisy at hand if I do.

A fucking genuinely diagnosed autistic chief mod sitting and clapping to you making vile abuse where you stroll around saying 'hehe I'm so smart I know how to talk about word interpretation' then mocking people for being autistic or British. Maybe the American was the autistic one in your example, ever think of that? 
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People who mostly interact with others through text tend to show signs that could be interpreted as autism.

It is true, a great deal is lost in communication through text. Going from text to the real world is quite a leap too. Social cues, appropriate emotional affect, text, etc. These are like skills that get better with practice.



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--> @coal
But what is vocal inflection? Here's a sentence to help you think about the issue:

"I didn't say he kicked his dog."

Try reading that sentence placing emphasis on each single word, and consider how the meaning changes. 

Sure just looking at that sentence in isolation many of those interpretations are possible but I am having trouble imagining any possible text-based conversation where this sentence could come up and the inflection/meaning isn't incredibly obvious just by reading the context of the conversation.

We know that someone definitely made a doggy kicking accusation but not who made it?

-- I didn't say he kicked his dog.

We don't know that an accusation was made, just that someone is claiming that one was?

-- I didn't say he kicked his dog.

Etc.

Text-based conversations can in fact sometimes actually be easier because of this ability to re-read portions of the conversation for context on what someone might mean.

Another more direct example for this site in particular would be the quote and reply system. So far there are around five or so people involved in the conversation of this thread. Because of the quote system people instantly know exactly what I am responding to (and again, can re-read it for context at their convenience if needed) as opposed to if I was just joining this conversation after listening in verbally I would have to take a moment to clarify that I was not responding to the last speaker by verbally saying something along the lines of "Let's put aside all this irrelevant talk about autism and get back to the original point for a moment though. Coal, I think you brought up the classic inflection example about accusations of dog kicking right? I would like to respond to that for a moment with my own counter-example." Just to begin to get my point across, whereas since we are having this conversation over text I can accomplish the exact same thing as the above sentence by merely copy-pasting from the OP into a quote box.

The more I think about it (and I have not thought about this topic at all before seeing this thread) the more I think text might actually be a superior form of communication in many cases. Honestly if someone is reading a clearly-written grammatically correct text they have no excuse not to understand exactly what is being communicated.

I think an interesting experiment would be to record a group chat on the Hangouts about a certain semi-complex topic then have that same group have a group conversation in a thread about the same topic and compare the thread with the recording to see which conversation contained more actual misunderstandings.
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--> @coal
The "burn down your house with lemons" meme from DDO comes to mind. 
Is this not from tumblr??? I've been going around saying this for the last couple o' years assuming this was a mainstream thing. 


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--> @Annie_ESocialBookworm
It's from the video game Portal.
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As for your other example...

For example, RM assumed that I was using autistic as an insult, because he perceives me to be some menacing force to be contended with that is the alpha of the DDO elite, or some other conspiracy nonsense. 

He also assumed that because I have had frank disagreements with Virt on things, that I am intentionally insulting Virt.  That interpretation is a reflection of exactly the problem I was referring above: easily excitable people tend to read meaning into words that is not there, and is not meant to be there; because of their proclivity to interpret what people say in the least charitable way possible.

I do not think this is a fault of text-based communication. Based on past experience I think RMs persecution-complex-like tendency to falsely assume everyone is out to insult or belittle him (or just pretend to make such an assumption in order to troll people, I honestly can't tell) any time such an interpretation is remotely possible is just a personality quirk of his and that having a conversation with him over some non-text based media would garner similar results.
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--> @Discipulus_Didicit
You are not the issue, Coal is. You are just someone who has a 'percecuted by people with persecution complex' paranoia complex.

Thank you for your time in psychoanalysis.
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No, its from DDO Mafia.  Back in the old days.  
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Lmfao I have never claimed to be persecuted by anyone because I never have been persecuted by anyone.
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No, its from DDO Mafia.  Back in the old days.  

It is a quote from the Portal game though. I doubt portal got it from DDO, much more likely that DDO got it from portal.
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I have this problem offline as well. Perhaps because I think if I know what I meant that is good enough. The difference is when I am giving instruction. I don't care if my motives are misunderstood. But I do care if you misunderstand my instructions. 
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The shpee RM
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I completely agree