2012/Text Lacks Empathy

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Have you ever written a nice friendly email and gotten a reply that seems like they read a whole different email?

Textual communication has special problems. This talk will help you mitigate them: ensuring that what you mean to say is what is understood; interpreting messages that seem totally out of whack; and increasing empathic bandwidth.

Speakers: Michael Schwern, Noirin Plunkett

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Contributed notes

(Add your notes here!)

  • "How To Report A Bug" is a similar talk by Schwern through the emotionally charged lens of reporting and receiving bug reports. Video of it is available.
  • "Empathy is the power of projecting one's personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation" - Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Tact: input and output is different for geeks vs normals
  • Perception is reality.
  • They don't know how you feel.
  • State your emotions
  • Paraphrase (error checking for human language)
  • Use emoticons (They're not childish, they're emotional cues)
 Emoticons are processed as images, so can be more effective than straight text (i.e. "This makes me happy" is not necessarily perceived as happily as :-)
  • Fill in the blanks
 Assume good intent
 If you detect sarcasm, respond with sincerity (do not escalate)
  • If things aren't going well, switch mediums! Least to most empathetic
 Email -> IM or IRC -> Voice -> Video -> Real Life
 Beware Email and IM between participants of differing language backgrounds.

Once you meet someone in real life you can add 'voice' to their text communication.

Social group in humans is driven by language rather then grooming.

Negative emotion fills void.

Emphasis can be delivered by vocal stress, by speech patters, facial expression, gesticulation...

The process of editing... what does it really do?

  • pour back empathy
  • clarify meaning
  • identify the way to reach a demographic

Geeks on the other hand... we seek with our fingers. We ignore the extra off band communications.

How to socialize

  • most online communities have adopted there own acceptable patterns. (is it ok to be rude here?)
  • recognize social feedback, adjust accordingly.

Oblique strategies ... for communication


  • filters
    • often tact is applied to output ("normal" ie thank you)
    • can be applied to input ("geek" we assume facts, thank you is just flourish)
    • causes problems :
      • person->tact => tact->geek (will they just get to the point)
      • person => geek (what a jerk)
  • how to fix?
    • just apply a little tact to your output it will smooth things over
  • templates :
Hello $person
Thanks $me

Perception is Reality

  • Remember they don't know how you feel! You have to tell them that.
    • I'm pissed ...
    • I really like ...
    • This makes me happy.
    • it's really easy to just say +1 as needed


Parrot back as summary of understanding as a way to confirm that message was received as intended.

  • "What I'm hearing is .... does that match?"


  • childish or a great way to convey emotion simply and quickly?

Fill in the gaps

State the obvious and clarify when confused.

  • use I statements!!
    • I don't understand why ???
  • if reply is sarcastic reply with sincerly, do not engage!
    • when things go off the rails, switch to a more engaging medium.
      1. email (least)
      2. irc/im
      3. voice
      4. video
      5. real life (most)
  • humans are hard wired to work together... leverage this

it's not a competition

Slow down, match reply speed, find common ground.

  • argue for the interest
    • window open vs window closed is different then breeze vs mosquito

Grice's maxims

  • quality (don't bother with false)
  • quantity (only say what you need to)
  • relation (stay on topic)
  • manner (speak to the to the audience)

This can be said as: not every idea that's in your head needs to come out your mouth

use the passive

  • you broke the build vs the builds broke
  • say you're wrong when you are wrong, if you are right shut up
  • blame the code
  • provide an out
  • I'm sorry
  • thank you
  • if all else fails, cookies!

If it doesn't matter, do it their way

Either this matters, or you're just arguing to argue if it does matter then explain why it matters! If some one's doing something completely stupid then ask why! there might be a reason.

terminology arguments

  • If you are fighting over it, clarify or stop using.
  • State the environment: I'm on vacation, I'll not be responding ...
  • Summary first, details second


Books Suggested

  • _Getting to Yes_ - Negotiating Agreement without giving in
  • _The Design of Everyday Things_ by Donald Norman (group therapy for people who have been abused by bad designs)
  • _Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language_ by Robin Dunbar
  • _How Not To Write A Novel_ by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark
  • _Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer_ by Roy Peter Clark
  • _The Book On Writing_ by Paula LaRocque

Additional Things

  • summary first, detail second
  • Be Nice - to everyone, including people who make no sense! (*there is maybe something you are not understanding)