Team messaging apps have, for several years, brought informal text messaging into the workplace: Slack messages, Facebook Messenger, and Gchat have all become replacements for email, allowing colleagues to communicate with their teams without having to speak out loud very often.
Then why do we still misunderstand each other all the time?
Thanks. Thank you. Thx. TY. Ta
We’ve seen colleagues give each other the cold shoulder for days because of a too-formal punctuation mark in a Gchat message or an errant GIF in Slack. And never mind the difficulty in interpreting jokes.
Welcome to the new era of emojis, no periods and “thx” instead of “thank you” between your request for project deadlines.
As a millennial who has worked on all of these platforms, I have witnessed firsthand how tone can be misconstrued between millennials used to texting informally and older generations who have been trained to always use proper punctuation in work emails.
We overcompensate cheeriness at work
When you can’t see the person on the other side of your screen, it’s harder to interpret feelings, and there are usually no easy answers. One popular corrective many people use is to overcompensate with friendliness, piling on exclamation points and smiley faces.
But even that gets complicated: Was tacking on that smiley face emoji after a work request cheerful or passive aggressive? It can be both! Allow me to be your millennial soothsayer on this translation journey down into what gestures can be misconstrued and how you can avoid them.
Periods are aggressive
Periods carry a stern finality in instant messenger communications. If you want to communicate well across generations in the workplace, drop your periods. They are the equivalent of too-formal text messages from your parents that start with “Dear son” and end, “Sincerely, Mama.”
In text message bubbles, you already know when the sentence has come to an end, so you don’t need the full stop of a period. Adding a period in these cases can seem excessive, and even aggressive.
In a 2016 study, researchers found that university students rated texts that ended with periods as less sincere than those that ended without one. Periods in text messages can even be interpreted as being a jerk.
In Slack messages, I find periods can aggressively signal that the conversation is not just over, but OVER.
As an example: When your boss asks for one more task, you can reply “fine,” or “fine.” The former is a happy-go-lucky shrug of “whatever.” The latter indicates you’re angry or annoyed.
A quick guide to working with millennials: the more formal the language they use, the more they are telegraphing keeping you at arms’ length. In emails, I still button myself up in formal language, but in my professional Slacks and Gchats, the more informal I am, the more comfortable I am around you.
When in doubt, use a thumbs up
Pictograms were the earliest form of human communication for a reason. Emojis provide useful aids to make your language clearer — particularly emotions.
As linguist Gretchen McCullough explained, “emoji are more like gesture than language. When you crunch the numbers, the face, hand, and heart emoji are by far the most popular.”
Indicating neutral agreement can be fraught when punctuation and truncated syntax—k, kay, kk— is loaded and ambiguous online. I once had a fellow millennial colleague ask if my terse “k” meant that I was less than enthusiastic about completing a request. This was in a job where the majority of editorial debates and professional communication happened over Facebook messenger, so tone was hard to read.
After that, I tried sprinkling my instant messenger communications with more exclamation points, but its loudness felt performative and forced: K! Ok! Okay! I’m so grateful to be alive to create this product!
Since then, I have become a proponent of using the thumbs-up emoji over using any version of “okay” when it comes to signaling agreement. I use the praise-hands emoji to indicate louder agreement. When I need to be clearly understood, I supplement my meaning with unambiguous gestures.
Don’t use GIFs if you’re a beginner
GIFs— short looping videos that are integrated into these instant messenger platforms— are an advanced tutorial that we would need a whole semester to cover.
GIFs represent emotions even more strongly than emoji do. If you’re a beginner, I would avoid using gifs. In GIFs, you’re using other people’s emotions to indicate your own, and you don’t want your colleagues to wonder what you mean by your Michael Jackson eating popcorn GIF.
These are just a few basic tips I have learned through trial and error. Instant messenger platforms have afforded us the nimbleness to communicate at a moment’s notice, but they have also opened Pandora’s box of ambiguous nuance and words that have been changed by memes. Until we’re all projecting our communications into each other’s minds through the Cloud, we’ll need to remain thoughtful about how we communicate that we are “ok” online. U mad?