Blurred Language Boundaries: How To Navigate The New Age Of Workplace Communications2021-07-21T20:57:18+00:00

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Blurred Language Boundaries: How To Navigate The New Age Of Workplace Communications

By Sarah Stadler

Blurred Language Boundaries: How To Navigate The New Age Of Workplace Communications

By Sarah Stadler

I’ll be honest, I curse like a sailor. For me, it’s undeniable that cursing, when used appropriately, can help blow off steam, make something funny, or emphasize a point. Mostly, I keep my cursing to my interactions with friends and family and I don’t curse at people, but more, I curse about things. People who know me well get where I’m coming from. It’s easy to turn it on and off based on my audience. I also have a rule: I don’t curse in writing. Don’t ask me why it’s a rule. It just always has been for me. Something about writing out a curse word makes it feel extra serious and extra wrong. Tone gets lost. Intent flies out the window. So, I don’t write them. (Plus, Apple autocorrecting a certain word to “duck” is somehow still hilarious to me, so I’m here for it.) 

Why does this matter? Well, because what we say verbally often doesn’t translate well to writing. Writing takes more thought, more finesse, and more care. The rules of language in writing are different. It’s why we have an APA Style Guide but not an APA Speaking Guide. When communicating verbally, language can bend more. When it’s written, it’s more rigid. 

What’s the point? Think about all the writing you’re doing at work now. Remote or hybrid work has pushed us into writing most of our communications multiple times a day, often on the fly. Many of us type at the speed of thought. And, naturally, we’re less formal when we’re behind a screen sitting at home and working. Let’s face it. This wreaks havoc on our workplace communications if we don’t have some guidance. 

Calling someone an a*****e in a verbal fit over cocktails with a co-worker lands differently than typing it in a string of verbal fits on Slack. And, even if it doesn’t go that far, what missteps are we making in our writing that could negatively impact the recipient, ourselves, or the companies that we work for? Further, with the rapid changes in what is and isn’t acceptable to say, how can we hope to keep up? 

There are consequences to this shift in informal tone and writing in our workplace communications. Tone and language have always been tricky, but now that so much of our communication takes place in writing we’ve lost the benefit of vocal and non-verbal queues, causing a majorly blurry line between what we should and shouldn’t say. 

When are language and tone in what we write at work an issue? The problems come when:

  • your informal tone stands in the way of your career progression
  • your true meaning is distorted or misconstrued
  • formal compliance guidelines are broken
  • your writing communication style is at odds with company policy
  • you unintentionally hurt, exclude or stigmatize someone (especially easy to do now given all of the changes in our language and our culture)

What Happens When You Confuse Spoken and Written Communication?

Using increasingly informal language and tone in our written communications can actually be risky business. When you’re IM’ing with family in one tab to set up weekend plans, and you’re also IM’ing your boss to plan the next merger and acquisition, it’s super easy to cross lines and forget who is who and which is which. Which means it’s easy to write something completely inappropriate and potentially suffer some serious consequences.

The positive side to informal communication at work, is that it helps with morale and can encourage the feeling of belonging for employees as well as a client or customer. There is a negative side, though. Especially when it comes to writing, delete being obsolete (because everything is stored somewhere), and the chance that something gets shared beyond its intended audience thanks to our ability to quickly forward, copy, screenshot, etc. 

How Can You Navigate The Blurry Lines?

We’ve all likely heard the advice of “never send a work email in the midst of anger,” or “cool off and create some emotional distance from the topic you are writing about,” or “ask a friend or colleague to read your message and give you feedback on the tone.”

Those are all good pieces of advice, to be sure. But, it’s not always realistic. When almost every communication happens in writing, it’s nearly impossible to step away and think it through because the nature of something like Slack doesn’t quite allow for that. We’ve moved way past email and into instant communication that comes at the speed of thought. It’s no mystery that technology could help us with this. 

At Honcho, we make software that sits on your work desktop and prompts you to keep it professional. It’s designed to help you keep up with your company’s communications rules and standards, while taking the burden off of you having to remember all of these changing standards. It’s in-the-moment guidance and training, like Grammarly, but for ethics and compliance.

The fact is, writing the wrong thing at work could get you more than a polite warning — it can get you fired, your company fined, sued, and major reputational damage if it goes public.

And because our communication instincts no longer serve us as well as they once did…there is Honcho to make that line crystal clear.

Sign up below to read the rest of our series on the new risks in workplace communications. Our next post will cover how to navigate today’s political and cultural realities when it comes to professional communication.

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