Communication Confusion

Last night, a group of us were at an event when the conversation turned to punctuation and communication. This isn’t unusual. My friends and I have debated a number of punctuation-related issues, such as the appropriate use of exclamation points, the correct application of “apostrophe s,” and the new emphasis on the “em dash.” Some might find it surprising–and, frankly, boring–that lawyers would discuss punctuation and communication at a social function, but they really shouldn’t: attorneys will argue about anything, and lawyers arguing about punctuation and communication tools is like most people arguing about sports.

The conversation last night, though, was a bit different because some of the firm’s younger attorneys were involved. And it quickly became clear that these earnest twenty-somethings pay extremely careful attention to the crafting of the written messages they receive and the mode of communication employed, too. When they report to another lawyer and receive a “Thanks.” response, versus the more enthusiastic “Thanks!” reply, it has an impact on them. And they explained that a terse “thx” would be viewed as exceptionally dismissive, and perhaps even veering into the “personal affront” category.

Moreover, these thoughtful folks aren’t just reacting to punctuation and abbreviations, they also have views on messages conveyed the mode of communication. Email is viewed as the appropriate channel for work communication, and texting is for personal communication, so if you get a work-related communication via text that tells you something important. The “chat” function on our firm’s “Teams” application is somewhere between those two on the spectrum of work versus personal, and the use of the messaging function during a Teams video call has an etiquette all its own. And that doesn’t even begin to capture the complexities introduced by social media or, for that matter, emoticons or memes.

This discussion caused me to mentally revisit my recent communications to consider whether I have inadvertently engaged in communications that might be perceived as rude or intrusive into personal spaces. I typically send a “Thanks!” response, so I think I am OK in avoiding that faux pas, and I don’t really text about work matters. But the ever-changing rules of the game can be a bit overwhelming for an old guy whose career began in an era before email, cellphones, and social media were invented.

One important thing to remember is that communication is a two-way street, and that implicit messages that one party might read into a communication may well not be intended by a sender who is ignorant of the latest practices and sensibilities. Training on the new rules and tools would probably be advisable for fogies like me.