See? I’m Smiling!

I had this teacher in high school who had a mean temper. He taught math and the newly introduced computer science. We learned DOS programming and how to create graphics by designating pixel ranges on Apple computers.

You now know exactly how old I am.

He would become aggravated with us. Especially if a student questioned his authoritae. His anger would be palpable as he reacted, but he would assure us he wasn’t angry. “See?” he would say, “I’m smiling!” as he bared his teeth to us in a rictus of a grin.

Looking back, I suspect he’d had some sort of anger-management training where they counseled him to smile through the rage. It came out creepy, however, and many cartoons were circulated of him with a lizard head and that awful smile.

A book blogger I like brought up an interesting discussion yesterday, about an author who has been exhorting her fan base to buy her new release in a particular way at a particular time, so that she can hit the bestseller lists. What people have been responding to is less that she’s asking this of her readers, than the tone she’s using. One example from Twitter:

“One more time people: now..cough..FRAKKING LISTEN. I’ve said it 1000 times in the past 2 wks, ONLINE sales DON’T COUNT. Don’t help me at all”

The comments on the blog are interesting to read, as various authors are chiming in with their takes — many of them saying they’re happy for any and all sales and readers. The author in question has a number of champions coming to her defense accusing people of misinterpreting the woman’s intent because body language can’t be read through the internet and that she’s a really sweet, funny person and people are just being mean to her.

Well, okay.

There’s lots said about how the internet, whether it be emails, Facebook posts, Twitter, lead to miscommunication. (Amusingly, Blogger doesn’t think that’s a word.) I think that can certainly occur, especially with Twitter, where the responses can be staggered and so what appears to be an answer to one thing was actually to an older tweet.

But I think that often the communication is very clear. Perhaps more clear than people would like. Sometimes the intent is laid more baldly without the in-person wink-wink, nudge-nudge. A friendly smile might diffuse the exhortation that you must “FRAKKING LISTEN!” But does it change the intent?

A friend of mine is a big believer in “truth in jest.” That people often cloak honest responses as sarcasm or jokes. The “oh, ha, ha, you’re such a wench about doing dishes – just kidding.” I suspect that we all become reliant upon using personal charm to smooth over awkward social situations. An opportunity the internet doesn’t really provide.

A person might later cry “out of context!” or “I meant to be funny and was misread!”

The thing about the internet and social media is that they really do expose you to your audience. Warts and all. It’s about connecting with other people, which means it can be really difficult to control what they see in you. It might be that people see who we are more clearly than we’d like through our random little posts.

Baring our teeth and assuring people that it’s a smile won’t always work.

12 Replies to “See? I’m Smiling!”

  1. You learned BASIC programming, sweetie. Not really DOS. But this really just serves to underscore your whole now-we-know-how-old-you-are point.

  2. I think the email/blogging/twitting thing has opened a whole new psychology to communication. I was a Organisational Comm major and I have a feeling that and Business Comm had to be (or should have been) wildly revamped over the last many years.

    On the one hand, it's easy to be misunderstood because someone reads a tone of voice you didn't use, though it's also easy to hide behind the "If you'd heard me say it, you'd know I was joking" gambit.

    On the other hand, it's an opportunity to be more precise with communications. I have learned that a sensitive communique needs to be handled with kid gloves – or maybe not emailed at all.

    I'm eagerly awaiting the day when people learn not to email about sensitive issues and have the sense to know when to pick up a phone or call a meeting.

    Off soapbox.

    I know which computer teacher you're talking about. I feel so close to you right now.

  3. Everything someone posts or say on the internet is open to interpretation. it is very hard to know if what is being said is in joking matter or whatnot.

    But authors really do need to be careful because of what the public sees them as.

  4. Kev – oh. Eeep. And YOU are older!

    Marin – those are great insights. I find it interesting, too, that after all these years of moving business interactions more and more online, for the sensitive stuff we're going back to the telephone and in-person conversations. It's creating a kind of tiering of communications. Watching people learn this is always interesting. I do feel certain that berating people for taking communications the wrong way is not the solution.

    Speaking of which, I feel so gratified that my recollections were accurate about that teacher!

    And Katie – you're right. Authors rely on the goodwill of their readers, created partly by the works themselves, but also by the author herself. Like it or not!

  5. Mm. The smile you describe only thinly veiled my AP English teacher's "I'm picturing you all dead by my hand" fantasy. That we could all identify precisely what he was thinking behind that smile disturbed the entire class. We were a subdued lot. Did our work, got the hell out. As to the author tweeting exhortations to her fans – control issues. She's pretending she can control the uncontrollable – other people's behavior. Wonder how that's working for her. (Here's the advantage of being trite – you read that in exactly the tone of voice I meant you to because we all know where it comes from…but this is the only advantage. Cause you know, it's still trite.)

  6. There are those who try to leverage the "truth in jest" on-line through emoticon abuse.

    ::sniffle:: Poor emoticons, too cute to ignore, too pervasive to annihilate.

  7. I've been learning a lot about this very subject as I've spent the last month getting the hang of blogging and tweeting. I write humorous fiction (or at least I like to think I do) and there have been several occasion where jokes I've attempted have fallen flat. Or sometimes half my readers will get it, and the other half will reply to me in a way that makes it clear they thought I was serious. It's a good lesson for me that dry humor doesn't always translate in social media!

    Great blog post!


  8. Okay Marcella – your AP English teacher was clearly the clone of our comp sci teacher. Truly unsettling! I think that's a good point, that authors want to try to control the uncontrollable. The sad truth is, there's only one phase of this business under our complete control: the first draft. After that, we have to accede to the forces of the market, like it or not.

    KAK – you are *so* right! Emoticon abuse is substituted for careful phrasing far too often. Or is that what you meant? 0_o?

    Isn't that interesting, Tawna? I can see how a dry humor like yours would elicit mixed responses. "You BURNED your thigh?!?" It's an educational experience, alrighty…

  9. LOL, funny thing is, I really DID burn my thigh. No joke. Don't hold a wine glass between your legs on a sunny day.

    (But see, that was one of those jokes I figured everyone would assume I was making up. Sadly, it just happened to be true).


  10. (Let's try this again after that little crashing snafu earlier…)

    I actually had first-hand experience with this yesterday. Someone called me "highly-opinionated" and, while they meant it as a compliment, it came off to me as "mouthy and obnoxious." This person barely knows me from Twitter and my blog, two places where I actually try to curb my stronger opinions and temper my abrasive, caustic humor into friendly cynicism. The very last thing I wanted to come across as was opinionated, but I failed because no matter what mask I lay over my words, I can't help how others perceive them. Just as the person who called me "highly-opinionated" can't help that I read it as "mouthy and obnoxious" (probably because I'm very afraid of crossing the line from brash into obnoxious, so it makes me a little sensitive to that).

    It's actually a good lesson to carry over into writing, and on the quest towards publishing. Just as on the internet, once we let our words fly out into the world as a book we can't really control how people will interpret them. We can't force readers to read a scene in the exact voice we intended, or picture the exact thing we want. All we can do is choose our words carefully, and be sure to find the right ones to convey the appropriate message whether it's in a story, on Twitter, or in any other venue.

  11. Ah, Adrien-Luc — thanks for persevering and re-composing!

    It is a good lesson. I've been taken aback several times by the Follow Friday (on Twitter) notes saying what I'm about. They're remarkably perceptive about traits I hadn't thought I'd shown.

    Maybe it does come down to a question of control. People see what they see, whether we mean them to or not, whether it's how we wish to be perceived.

    Adrien-Luc – you may be opinionated, which can also be called assured, confident and decisive. It makes you who you are and what makes you interesting.

    Let the words fly! If we are honest and are careful writers, then we can do nothing more.

  12. I do think things can be misconstrued in the written word. My brother and I both have a similar sense of humor and obviously know each other well, and yet one night got into a knock down on Facebook chat (I know!) over I don't even know what, because he totally misunderstood something I wrote and it just spiraled into one ugly mess from there!

    And let's face it–there are people who don't "get" sarcasm, dry humor, wit, etc, in person–they are totally missing the gene– so it's probably a stretch to think they'd follow along online. I try to tread lightly around those folks and pray I don't offend anyone. (Unless I mean to and then I think I'm perfectly clear about my intentions!)

    Excellent post though…words are powerful…but as they are handled by us flawed individuals (well, I should only speak for myself, ahem), they can and do come out wrong at times. I hope that most people judge others by the totality of their words and actions and not just a fleeting tweet or two.

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