My great idea to prevent email or phone mix-ups: a temperament monitor!

11th March 2011 at 00:00
Non-verbal communication lacks vital body-language cues and can get us in a right pickle

If you are reading this on Saturday morning, I'm probably writing the next piece at the same time. That's what I was doing two months ago when I made suggestions for New Year resolutions. One involved gratuitously silly maths concerning paying for private education.

Any time I write an article that mentions the independent sector, I always mentally address it to my friend Colin. I once referred to him as a charity worker when the establishment where he teaches was recognised as being deserving of charitable status. Colin and I have half a lifetime of friendship behind us and I know that deliberately fatuous reasoning on my part will be met with an equally fatuous comeback via email or Facebook. Just in case anyone who wasn't Colin read the article, I finished off with, "For my part, I have resolved this year to fight simplistic, ill- considered statements with simplistic, ill-considered arguments, starting 500 words ago."

I made two mistakes. One was not checking my word count properly. I exceeded it, and the sentence quoted above got cut. The other error was to fail to recognise that a sequence of words designed to be a gentle kid-on to one person may be seen as a sarcastic dig at a carefully-considered choice by another. Indeed, that is how the private education piece was viewed by a Facebook friend, who felt the tone was snide.

I was genuinely taken aback. Surely, for the tone to be snide, I would have to have felt that way when I wrote it? Though admittedly prone to a stupid sarcasm that comes with my geek operating system ("When will you be back from Aberdeen?", "Well, unless I can install a warp core and find some dilithium crystals for my Nissan Almera Tino, three hours."), snideness is not something I want to be associated with.

It's the old non-verbal communication thing at play, I reckon. Print and electronic communication lacks the vital body language cues that indicate whether someone is being silly, serious or indeed snide. While I'm not saying anything new here, I think it bears repeating, if only because I myself have fallen into the habit of emailing someone three desks away. Is there anyone reading this who hasn't witnessed a text or email war flaring up, when a face-to-face meeting or telephone call could have prevented a great deal of hurt?

In geeky but not sarcastic mode, I thought up a useful addition to a computer or mobile phone, achievable using today's technology. Sophisticated pulse and skin resistance sensors monitor the user's temperament. Under certain conditions, the device will refuse to send a mail or text. Careers will be saved. Yes, really.

Gregor Steele has carefully counted the words in this article so that none of it is

Gregor Steele, Scottish Science Equipment Resource Centre.

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