My Grandma, when she was alive, loved to talk about her first trip to Europe as a young ingénue. It was considerably more successful than mine (see my last post). For one thing, my family had more money in those days. She made a grand tour of some European capitals, saw lots of art and cathedrals, and fell in love “two or three times,” as she reported, waving her hand dismissively, as if to confine those forgotten European boys to the romantic dustbin. When it came time for her to return, she was scheduled to do so on a very exciting new ocean liner that was heading out on its maiden voyage.
The name of the ship was the Titanic.
It was the custom in those days, and in those circles, for the various ships to put on cocktail parties in port before departure, and if you knew what you were doing (and you were young and pretty) you could easily get invited to the parties.
My grandmother attended several, and – as she tells it – was smitten with the captain of the German line. He was much more handsome than anyone at the Titanic party.
So, as my grandmother says, “For once in my life, I disobeyed my father (I imagine that was, in her mind, the real moral of the story) and switched my ticket on the Titanic for one on the German line.” She of course sent a telegram to great-grandfather, saying, “Leaving Titanic for German Line. Love Ethel.”
Apparently, the clerk at the telegraph office misunderstood my grandmother, because the telegram that arrived, the family lore maintains, said, “Leaving. Titanic. Love. Ethel.”
She says that, a few days later at sea she was standing on the very exclusive Captain’s deck, flirting with that handsome gentleman, when they both saw lights in the distance, like signal flares or perhaps fireworks. “What is that?” my grandmother asked. “That,” said the captain, after studying the night sky for a minute, “Is the Titanic’s fireworks display.”
Who could be jealous of the Titanic?
My grandmother says that she experienced a pang of jealousy at that moment that she wasn’t on the Titanic, but consoled herself with the sparkling blue eyes of the captain beside her. It wasn’t until the following morning that news arrived of the fate of the Titanic.
And everyone at home assumed she was missing at sea and probably dead, for the next few days, because of the ambiguity of the garbled telegram. Grandma said, “When I did arrive home, my father couldn’t decide if he was more relieved that I was alive or angry that I had disobeyed him and jumped ship!”
Most virtual communications today are like that garbled telegram that caused so much consternation in our family so many years ago. (At least as my Grandmother tells the story; I have no idea how reliable a narrator she was.) They only contain bits of the necessary story. They lack, in fact, huge amounts of emotional subtext that helps us makes sense of what’s being said and what it means.
Before you send a virtual communication, then, take a moment to stop and think about the receiver. What’s missing from this text, or email, or phone message, or video link? Especially what emotional colorations are missing? How could someone potentially misunderstand the message as a result? How could you add back in some of the subtext to increase the understanding of the recipient?
Remember, what we care most about in human communication is the intent of the other person or people. Always try to make your intent clear, and you won’t have to retract, reframe, and apologize nearly as often as you otherwise would.