How to Get Your Point Across Online, With Linguist Gretchen McCulloch

Photo: Yvon Huynh
Photo: Yvon Huynh

Have you ever spun out over why your friend ended that text with a period? Or missed the subtle sarcasm in an unpunctuated email? We’re clearing up all of these online miscommunications and more this week with help from internet linguist, Gretchen McCulloch. Listen in to hear Gretchen talk about how to better approach those exhausting Zoom calls, and how we can improve on texting with people whose communication styles differ from your own.

Gretchen is the resident linguist at WIRED and author of the New York Times bestseller Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.

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Highlights from this week’s episode

On how to have better Zoom calls:

[I]t’s really tiring when you’re on a video call to see yourself reflected. You know, like most of the time when we’re hanging out with friends, we aren’t sitting in front of a mirror watching ourselves. And if you are sitting in front of a mirror, it’s a little bit distracting. Like you’re thinking about what your own hair looks like or whether you’re making a weird face or something and you’re not so looking at the other people you’re talking with. So one thing that I encourage people to do if you’re having that sort of [Zoom] fatigue is to turn off your video or put a little sticky note in front of your video or go into a new tab or something, or just have both of you turn off the video if it’s easier or at least turn off your own so you’re not seeing yourself reflected. And I think a lot of people find video calls less exhausting if you don’t have to constantly be confronted with the weirdness of seeing your own face.

On how to approach communicating with someone who has a different style than you:

And so a lot of times when people talk about text-based conversations, they really want me to, like, vindicate their personal preferences. Like email should start with “Hi,” no email should start with, “hey.” [And] here’s like the best sign off is the one that I’m using, whether it’s “best,” or “cheers,” or “regards,” or whatever. And what I like to do when I’m communicating with someone, in email, especially someone new for the first time, is sort of take my cues from them. If they want to start something off with “Hi” or with “Dear,” then I’ll do the same thing to try to make them comfortable and sort of meet other people where they are. And think about how can I make this experience something that that feels like we’re both winning and feels like we’re both getting along?

On why some people are more likely to adopt new linguistic styles than others:

[W]hen it comes to adopting particular speech styles of a community or adopting particular language styles is it’s not enough to simply be exposed to a language style to pick it up. [I]n many cases, it’s being exposed to it and then also thinking that there’s some sort of desirable characteristic about the people you’re talking to. You want to be like them somehow…So it depends on your sort of attitude towards a particular group of people. And if your attitude towards technologically-mediated communication is that it’s not really for you and doesn’t really feel like something you’ve ever been a part of, you don’t have any sort of incentive to pick up the kinds of subtleties that people who do think of themselves as tech people.

To hear more of Gretchen’s tips on how to avoid miscommunications online, check out the full episode!

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Episode Transcript

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