Saturday, December 7, 2013

Think Twice, Text Once

About twelve years ago, I was running a much larger ad agency than I do today. There were good things about it: a schnazzy office, a corporate credit card, a reason to wear something other than yoga clothes. There were also significant downsides ... 

45 creative, passionate people. 45 sensitive, supersized egos. 

In a word ... drama.

One afternoon, a vice president account director rushed into my office in a panic. "What do I do? What do I do?" It wasn't so much about what he needed to do as it was about what he had already done. He'd received an unfortunate email from a colleague. When I say "unfortunate," I mean she was snotty, stubborn, downright condescending. He immediately forwarded her email to me (I was his and her supervisor) with a snide observation including a term that rhymed with Ducking Rich (hint: try an F and a B). As often happens in the wonderful world of email, he did not in actuality send it to me. He accidentally sent it back to her.

"What do I do? What do I do?"

When email became the norm for interoffice communication, we had to teach all of our staff some new rules for this new world. Don't use all caps (IT WILL SEEM LIKE YOU'RE SCREAMING). Never hit "reply all" unless you really, truly, absolutely, unequivocally want to reply all. Don't hit "send" without proofreading the message first. Don't say anything negative about clients or coworkers (or the Bush administration). 

And, perhaps most important, never put anything in email that would be better communicated in person.

Alas, our teens need similar guidelines in their all-text, all-the-time social lives. There are many conventions (and assumptions) that I don't understand. (For example, did you know that if you include a period in your text sentiment it means that you're mad? Ugh, I can't keep track. Period.) But, what I do understand is how words can clear things up or muddy them completely. How you can diffuse a potential storm or stir one up out of seemingly nothing at all.

And, in this at least, my daughter recognizes and truly appreciates that I can help.

Typically, my intervention (she actually seeks it out, believe it or not) occurs in the car when I'm driving her somewhere. Or she bursts into my office — whether I'm on a conference call or not — distraught because so-and-so misunderstood what she said about what's-her-name. "What do I do? What do I do?"

While I hate to see her so distressed, I welcome these opportunities to teach her about all the nuances of effective communication that they simply do not cover in the Honors English program. Like ...

• Giving the other person a graceful way to save face (even when you think they are — and should admit they are — utterly in the wrong).

• Apologizing for any misunderstanding (even when you believe that any such misunderstanding is theirs and not yours).

• Backing away from a conflict (even when it would be way more satisfying to stay and fight it out).

• Realizing that less really is more (even though you have so much more you want, need, frrrrkin' must say).

• And, finally, giving up a new argument in order to save an old friendship. 

Teen girls (I can only speak for the girls; it may be very much the same for teen boys) are all about the drama. They are quick to find offense and not always quick enough to forget it. And girls like my daughter wear their hearts on their sleeves. Or, these days, on the text screens of their iPhones.

With careful wordsmithing, together, we have extricated my darling girl from many a thorny text situation. She appreciates this ("She likes me. She really likes me.") and I derive more than a little satisfaction from our successes.

It's nice to feel that mother knows best once in a while ... even if it's only once in a very, very long while.

If you enjoyed this post, order a copy of my new book Lovin' the Alien at

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