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Tone and Conflict on Twitter

March 28, 2014

angry_girlIt’s an accepted fact that tone is very difficult to convey in an email. And it’s where we can lay the blame for the invention of emoticons.

This lack of tone is why, in many situations, email is a very ineffective means of communication. At least with email, we have plenty of scope to explain ourselves – with Twitter, we only have 140 characters and, when we are replying to someone, even fewer.

It means that if you are at all worried about the reaction you will get to a tweet, you have to be a lot more careful when composing it. Consider how the words could be interpreted – both by people who know you and also those who don’t. If there is any ambiguity in tone or meaning, be more obvious. (And, whatever you do, avoid the use of emoticons!)

So why is tone such an issue? With the written word, it’s largely left to the reader to interpret. What’s really key is that we take our cues about tone from what we know about the writer. Here’s a great analysis by Diana Hsieh about the problems with email:

“The core problem is that tone is a hugely important element of communication, such that readers will infer tone from whatever information they have available to them. With email, that means that tone is largely inferred from background knowledge about and judgments of the writer.”

And that inference of tone is often the source of conflict. A case in point is Malcolm Turnbull’s recent tweet in response to Julia Keady’s complaint about lack of broadband access in her new house.

@SaysJuliaKeady just curious:- if connectivity was so vital to you why did you buy a house where there was no broadband available?

— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) March 20, 2014

It created an immediate and angry response, both from Julia Keady directly, and also others on Twitter. It is also started the often very funny hashtag #turnbulllogic.

Equally, the reaction from the mainstream media was largely negative:

There are some today suggesting that Mr Turnbull could spend less time sending snarky comments on Twitter and more time living up to his promises.
(, ‘Malcolm Turnbull suggests resident move house for decent broadband’, 22 March 2014)

If we go back to the point made by Diana Hsieh that we infer tone from what we know about the person, the public persona of Malcolm Turnbull is the multi-millionaire politician we have seen cutting opponents down to size in Federal Parliament and in the media on shows like the ABC’s QandA. That immediately creates a context for anything Turnbull tweets.

So what should Turnbull have done differently? For a start, he should have shown more empathy. Funnily enough, empathy was a topic of conversation reported today from a meeting between Pope Francis and US President Barack Obama.

Mr Obama recalled the meeting as an elevated discussion about the role of empathy in public and private life.
“It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge to wars,” he said.
(The Australian, ‘The Pope and Obama, lost in translation?’, 28 March 2014)

Turnbull should also have been more open in his question – after all, by replying to Keady, he was inviting a conversation. Instead, his question was interpreted by most as a rhetorical one.

So here goes an attempted re-write of Turnbull’s tweet:

@SaysJuliaKeady I’m sorry to hear that:– what exactly is the issue for you with broadband connectivity in Ocean Grove?

What do you think?

(Pictured above: “Angry Girl“, by jasonippolito licensed for re-use by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

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