Sorry, I think I misunderstood

16Oct07

Anyone who has spent time using message boards or social networking will be fairly familiar with the concept of being misunderstood. We can often try our hardest to put forward a well structured argument, only for another user to turn it around and take it as something totally different.

As an administrator of a forum myself (see last week’s entry), I regularly find conflicts starting between users because one of them read a post in a way other than how it was intended. The most difficult type of conversing is that which includes ironic humour. Here is an example of such usage where it was misinterpreted:

Originally posted by user ‘Darren’ at PESGaming
I think we should sign Essien. They’ll take 5 million plus Essien won’t want to stay.

In this instance, ‘Darren’ was referring to Manchester United football club signing Michael Essien from Chelsea for a low sum. Many users picked up on the fact he was being sarcastic, due to the fact Manchester United already have far too many central midfield players as it is. However, several users responded as if believing what he had suggested:

Originally posted by ‘MUFCDean’

Are you a complete idiot, why on earth would we need another centre mid? Thank **** you are not the manager.

Fortunately, the original poster ‘Darren’ corrected ‘MUFCDean’ and the matter was closed. But there are many occasions when this is not the case and users can start arguments.

Let’s look at the style which ‘Darren’ used. His tone was very formal that the format and, to the untrained eye, could easily be looked upon in the same way in which ‘MUFCDean’ viewed it. When conversing online it is often recommended you should include a smiley if you intend on including sarcasm or ironic humour. It lightens the atmosphere, makes people feel at ease and generally a ‘wink’ is accepted as meaning you are not being entirely serious.

Of course, in the professional environment, this practice is not recommended. Posting smiley faces at the end of the account figures for the month just to cheer up the boss is not going to win you praise!

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One Response to “Sorry, I think I misunderstood”

  1. As you clearly demonstrated; misunderstanding happen rather frequently in online communities, and in forums more than any other type I might suggest. Mis-understanding themselves would be a minor issue, however the oft resulting arguments that ensue can cause rifts between community members and destroy any semblance of previous atmosphere. The causes of online misunderstandings are perhaps of greater concern for administrators for this reason.

    While you have indicated that online tone and mannerisms are somewhat, if not entirely, lost upon the reader I don’t feel that this covers the entire issue. Many of the issues could be avoided by an understanding of the ‘audience’, especially when it comes to ironic humour and the like. Unfortunately not everyone on the internet is equal in terms of language skills, the more eloquent community members are obviously more likely to pick up on the subtleties of a sarcastic comment.

    The break down comes when community members fail to pick up on the sarcastic/ironic nature of a post. Whether the original poster or the eventual reader are at fault, it will more likely than not be on the side of the member with relatively poor literacy. (This may be through not personal defficiency, perhaps it is a second language.) As you suggested the obvious solution is to end a post with a ‘smiley’, however this rather nullifies the humour of a subtle play on words or other witty comment. I feel a balance can be struck between subtlety and clarity without resorting to a device as obvious as a ‘smiley’.


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