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Communication is hard

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Something in email a couple of weeks ago indirectly reminded me of an incident from long ago:

I used to hang out on the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.comics. At some point, I read a modern-day-setting comic (Millennium #2) that included a panel with a location caption that read something like “Birmingham, fascist Britain.”

I was baffled by that line, so I posted to r.a.c asking what it meant. Was the comic set in an alternate universe or the future or something?

Someone responded to my post by saying, if I recall aright:

Oh, ARF!

I read that as a hostile way of saying “How could anyone be so stupid as to not understand this?”—to be read in the same tone as someone saying “Oh, Christ!” while rolling their eyes.

So I wrote back a stiff defensive note saying that I didn't see what I had done wrong, and that it seemed to me to be a reasonable question, and so on.

And the other person gently pointed out that one of the regulars on the newsgroup was a British guy whose initials (which he went by regularly) were A.R.F., and that instead of a hostile eye-rolling sort of tone, the poster had intended it to be a calling-for-someone kind of tone—like “Hey, A.R.F., your attention is needed over here; someone is asking a question that you would be interested in answering!”

I was embarrassed, because I had gotten all defensive for nothing, and because as a longtime reader of r.a.c I should've known about ARF.

But the other poster could certainly have communicated better too. Without context, a two-word sentence starting with “Oh” and ending with a word in all-caps and an exclamation mark can often be read in a variety of tones and can often mean a variety of things.

These days, I try to keep that kind of thing in mind when I read something that sounds to me like an indirect attack. But it's hard. Sometimes I notice the ambiguity and explicitly ask the writer what they meant; sometimes I start to write a long defensive response and it's only when I re-read the original phrase that I realize it was ambiguous; sometimes I still miss the ambiguity, or decide I must be interpreting it right, and send the defensive response, and only later learn that I misunderstood.

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