Learning to see positive

I have been working remotely for almost two years. Most of the communication that I engage in at work is in the form of text. Messages in Slack probably come out on top, GitHub issues and PRs in close second. I only send about one email a month at this point.

Text contains no emotion, no intonation, no umms (or less umms), no hand gestures, no smiles or frowns. Very little that is remotely human come to think of it. However many people do have their own style in written text, such as using or not using slang like lol or haha and so on, using or not using emojis, using all lowercase, or carefully formatting every message they send as if it is a letter to their grandmother.

In the last few years emojis have exploded in use. They have opened up a whole new way of communicating. And gifs too. Emojis and gifs are often used on their own, and are able to convey things which text cannot. They offer some respite from the drudgery of black and white that mostly fills our screens, or black and green if you're one of those 1337 h4ck0r coders portrayed by Hollywood.

You get quite familiar with an individual's messaging style after a while. A bit like code, everyone has a style that is distinct. Some more than others. If there was a mode in Slack that hid usernames I could probably still tell the author from the content of their message alone.

I have a tendency when reading text from others to assume that their tone is negative, condescending, or cynical. Yet when I speak to colleagues on a call following what I might consider a mostly negative-in-tone back-and-forth on a PR or in Slack, I am often surprised to hear that the tone of their voice does not reflect this. People don't sound in real life like they sound in my head. In fact, what I hear in my head is me, not the other person. That is quite telling.

Recently I received feedback that others interpret my tone in messages to be negative or combative. I thought this was not only useful feedback, but also interesting insofar as it reflects the way that I myself receive messages from others. It made me briefly sad to think of us all on the Internet sitting behind screens, all slightly disappointed or annoyed by the tone that we derive from others' messages, which is completely invented.

Some messages are clearly negative though. Not because of tone but because of the words that are used. Words are what constitute tone in text. And punctuation like the exclamation point, and this thing: ?!.

The full stop is an interesting one. What would you think if someone sent you this message, full stop and all: "nice idea." My immediate and natural reaction would be that it is sarcastic. Something about the full stop gives me that vibe.

But what I'm talking about are messages where there is little to no negative words used, maybe no punctuation, and also no positive words either. These are the kinds of messages which are easily misconstrued. Objectively they are neutral messages, whether intended as such or not, but humans don't naturally view things objectively. That is something everyone has in common. We are biased and prejudiced. We are flawed.

What I'm saying is that we do this to ourselves. I do this to myself. You do it to yourself. It's hard to change these built-in behaviours. How do we stop reading messages with a negative tone? We need to learn to see positive.

I am trialling a new approach to reading messages. I try to assume that they are written with a positive tone, and respond as such. I hope that it makes my responses and interactions with people as a remote worker more pleasant. And I hope it rubs off on others too.

Also I use more emojis and gifs.