Health and Wellness

How not to sound like a jerk (and communicate effectively) over Slack and email, according to a linguistics expert

@Elisall | Twenty20

As many people work remotely amid the COVID-19 pandemic, office interactions, meetings and water cooler conversations have gone totally digital. While messaging platforms like Slack and Zoom make communicating easier than ever, they can also make things awkward.

It's easy to read into a coworker's punctuation and words over instant message, Lauren Squires, linguist and associate professor at The Ohio State University, tells CNBC Make It. For example, you might find yourself agonizing over a curt-seeming "k." or second-guessing your emoji usage in your work correspondence.

This is normal when you're instant messaging, because "you are relying on what seem like completely literal cues, and you don't have feedback like facial expressions, tone of voice or other nonverbal signs that we use constantly when we communicate face-to-face or on the telephone," Squires says.

In reality, communicating digitally requires a little more effort than it does IRL. Here, expert linguists share their tips for staying productive and connected when you're working from home.

Mind your punctuation

To most people who spend time online, periods are only used for the multi-sentence messages or formal communications, Gretchen McCulloch, internet linguist and author of "Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language," tells CNBC Make It. "A period can indicate an increased level of seriousness, or formality or gravity or a falling intonation at the end of the sentence," she says. Or if it's a short, positive message like, "sounds good," using a period can make it sound sarcastic or passive aggressive. 

If you are going to use punctuation on Slack, just make sure that it conveys something, McCulloch says. For example, an exclamation point to show genuine excitement, or a question mark to indicate a rising tone of voice or dubiousness, she says. 

Use emojis like hand gestures

Using emojis can add a bit of levity to your work conversations, which people need right now. When it comes to work conversations, just insert them like you would a hand gesture in a normal conversation, McCulloch says. Not sure what all the emojis mean? You don't have to use all the esoteric shapes or facial expressions, just start simple. "There's no problem with a thumbs up or smiley face," she says. 

Set expectations

Communication styles are highly individual, and there are different generational norms that affect how we write and interpret messages online, Squires says. If you know that your style tends to be misconstrued, it's helpful to clear that up ahead of time, she says.

For example, if you tend to use short language without pleasantries in emails, you could let people know that it's not personal, it's just how you respond. On the other hand, if you usually pepper your messages with emojis, know that not everyone does the same thing. (In fact, Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry, the world's largest executive recruiting firm, says it's better to spell out how you feel.)

Be gracious

"One thing that would be useful especially in this time of just general uncertainty is for everyone from top to bottom to really try to act in good faith and expect good faith from others," Squires says. In other words, don't jump to conclusions or overthink it if someone's response seems rude. If you're working in a team, that means trusting in each other, and assuming that you all have good intentions, she says.

To that end, if you have a problem within your team, you shouldn't be relying on passive aggressive messages to try to solve it, McCulloch says. (Not to mention, while a conversation in person might fade or be forgotten, everything you say on Slack is saved for posterity.) This attitude will help you keep the peace and sort through any misunderstandings that may happen along the way.

Don't forget to chit chat

One of the things that people are missing right now if you're working from home is the opportunity to just sort of have water cooler, lunch room or hallway chats that make people feel connected to the work place, McCulloch says. Make a Slack channel for off-topic conversations, informal chats and cute animal photos, she suggests. Or if someone asks how you're doing in an email, mention how your dog is doing. Make space to have these conversations so that people feel more socially connected, she says. 

Give it time

As you get used to telecommuting, you'll start to feel less on-edge about using instant messaging, Squires says. This is especially true when you're communicating with your superior: "Once you I think have a relationship with people, and kind of know what their individual style is, then you also get a chance to understand better what their intentions are behind whatever they're saying," she says. 

Talk if you can

Lots of people are used to doing all of their business electronically via Slack and email, Squires says. But if things feel like they're getting lost in translation, or if you find you're over-analyzing everything your boss sends to you, don't forget you can pick up the phone (or video chat). Talking might feel less convenient in the moment, but it provides a feeling of human connection between colleagues that you might not have otherwise, she says. 

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