Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Literate Architect, Part 2 of 2

Recently, I discussed here a few words that get used incorrectly in common spoken and written forms, according to my teacher and professor relatives. It could be argued that architects don’t really need to be that fantastic of spellers, writers, or linguists—after all, we’re being paid to design buildings, not write research papers, right? Well…

Architects get a lot of schooling and training to do what they do, and then they turn around and charge people upwards of $100/hour to design buildings that work for the clients now and in the future and pass building codes and accessibility codes and will stand up and not leak water and will be warm in the winter and cool in the summer and so on…shouldn’t the person who does all these things be coherent and literate as well? It’s not actually that much to ask that a person with five to six years of college be able to use the word “their” correctly and form a clear, concise email explaining to the owner why they need more money to continue working on their project. Cheezburgr language only gets you somewhere if you’re actually a cat.

So the first rule of good writing and spelling is to remember that Spell Check is not your friend, just an acquaintance. One of my English professor relatives has commented to me that she frequently starts letters with “Dear family and friends,” but her fast-typing hands will put down “Dear family and fiends” instead. Both “friends” and “fiends” are words in the English language, but they mean very different things as a salutation in a letter. Because this kind of mistake is easy to make, having someone glance over important emails and letters before they go out is important. That same English professor relative of mine calls this the “looking for your keys” phenomenon. At some point, you’ve likely turned the living room upside down looking for your keys for twenty minutes with no luck, only to have someone walk into the room and immediately lay hands on them where they hid in plain view. So having someone look at a written document you’ve been staring at for a while is handy, as they’ll catch obvious mistakes that are staring you in the face.

The “family/fiends” accident brings up a discussion of nuance in language. The words you choose to say and especially to write in the workplace have an effect and convey particular meanings, so select those words with care. The intent is always to be polite but direct, civil and clear. Let’s use an example of emailing all of your consultants that you need their specs on Thursday to put into the spec book for CDs. The obvious thing is to email everyone with a simple line: “Send me your spec sections on Thursday. Thanks.” Fair enough, but think about what you’ve left out.
What format did you want the specs in (Word, WordPerfect, Works, PDF)? Oh, Word? Okay, so now it’s “Send me your spec sections in Word on Thursday.”

Oh, but specs have a header and footer on them, and what should they say? Now it’s “Send me your spec sections in Word format on Thursday with the headers and footers we sent you last week, using Friday’s date as date of issuance.”

Better, but were you wanting to get them to the printer’s office on Thursday? And they have to be there by 4pm so he can print them by Friday, so you’ll need all the specs together a couple of hours before that to be safe. So now were at “Send me your spec sections in Word format by 2pm on Thursday with the headers and footers we sent you last week, using Friday’s date as date of issuance.”

Nice! But we’re still missing something. Can you guess what it is?

How about “please”?

It may seem a bit silly to use a word like “please” when you’re just asking people to do the job you’re paying them to do. But two things are at work here: the importance of nuance in language, and the lack of tone of voice in a written format. “Send me your specs” and “please send me your specs” have a slightly different tone, even though they convey the same information. You can call someone and say aloud the first phrase with a kind and friendly (but not fiendish!) tone, but this isn’t spoken language: it’s written.

So now, let’s take our sentence and break it into two sentences to give people a little break while they read: “Please send me your spec sections by 2pm on Thursday. Please use the headers and footers we sent out last week, using Friday’s date as the date of issuance.” Very nice and professional.

The reason that emoticons and abbreviations (LOL, ROTFL, etc.) were invented for the internet is because people needed a way to convey that tone and emotion in an informal written format. People can now write under a picture on a website, “how many clowns did for your dress, Margo?” and pop in the winking face and a “JK” afterwards so Margo knows that they’re kidding. But using humor in a written format that relies on tone of voice and nonverbal communication (gestures, expressions, etc.) is asking for trouble. If one person has a bad day or is already annoyed at getting an email from you may see that joke as a dig at them, or at the very least, you’re just being rude. Save that kind of humor for a phone call instead. (Note: many of my consultants have enjoyed working with me because of my snarky sense of humor, but I have to tone it down in emails. I frequently find myself backspacing and deleting a few lines in each email because I realize that the tone of the joke could be taken as an insult. Instead, I send out the email with just the facts, and then I tell the consultant(s) the joke when I call later. I get better results that way.)

Next time, we’ll dig further into language and how word choice helps or hurts us. In the meantime, if you have a question or comment or topic you’d like to see discussed here, please share it in the comments or email me at the address in the sidebar. Thanks!

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