Illusion delusion

October 26, 2016 § 6 Comments

It happened to me again the other day. I met someone – in real life – whom I’d interacted with on social media, and they said to me, “It’s amazing. You’re exactly the way you are on Twitter.”

On one hand I take that as a compliment, because I do strive to be authentic wherever I go. But on the other, it leaves me unsettled, because while what I share on social media might be my authentic voice, it’s not always honest.

There have been days when I have maintained long, punny tweet threads with people while I’m lying in my bed crying. There have been many days when I’ve posted a funny anecdote from my day on Facebook that has people chuckling away, and which presents a picture of me gently poking fun at myself, when really I’ve been self-flagellating all day.

It’s all my voice, it’s all me. It’s not a lie, and yet it’s not the truth.

And there’s something else we do too. We all know that people paint a much more rosy picture of their life than is actually the truth, or that they post dark, deliberately obscure status updates in order to attract attention and/or sympathy. We’ve seen both of those examples, and everything that falls on the continuum between them. Yet we still think we can scroll through someone’s Twitter timeline or Facebook wall and figure out what’s going on in their heads.

We have lost our collective minds.

I remember one of my journalism lecturers explaining to us that objectivity in journalism in a myth just because of the series of choices made between a story coming in on the wires, to its final iteration on the page. Each of those choices is informed by the worldview of the people doing the choosing; all of their unconscious biases come into play. That’s why journalists aim for balance, not objectivity.

We do the same thing on social media: choosing what to post, how to post it, what to answer, what to ignore, what to pretend we didn’t see because it would be too uncomfortable to respond…

For me the saddest part of this is that while we are more connected than ever to a plethora of other human beings on the planet, so much of it is superficial. So much is illusion – smoke and mirrors and perfectly docile rabbits appearing out of hats while the audience applauds.

I’ve made some amazing friends through social media; people I might never have met otherwise. I’ve reconnected with people I’ve lost contact with. It’s a daily part of my life that is equal parts anger and frustration, comfort and distraction.

It’s not all bad, of course – nothing is. But it is steeped in contradictions, and the hidden danger is that it’s very easy to be sucked into a filtered, perfectly cropped, nipped and tucked version of reality that is no more than socially sanctioned narcissism. You can find yourself in a place where maintaining the illusion becomes more important than the truth; where you curate your life instead of living it.

And when everyone else is doing the same thing, your really can’t know for sure where the truth stops and the lie begins.

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Ask a stupid question …

February 12, 2015 § 7 Comments

There I was, happily slurping my coffee on a Saturday morning as I scrolled through my Twitter timeline, when a promoted tweet popped up that made my blood boil.

Now, promoted tweets have the power to do that at the best of times, but sometimes they do it so well that there ought to be a prize for them. A deeply sarcastic prize.

Here’s a screengrab of the tweet: see if you can figure out why I was so irritated (apart from the missing word in the picture, of course).

SAB

Let’s address the two questions separately – because they are separate questions.

With regards the first question, the closeness of your relationship with your children has nothing to do with your stance on underage drinking. Close relationships with children are fostered through love, listening, empathy, discipline, boundary setting, good family values, and so on.

Sure, underage drinking falls under boundary-setting, but if your relationship with your kids stands or falls on that issue … oy vey. You have bigger problems to worry about.

And as for the second question, what on earth is a cool parent? It isn’t your job to be cool – it’s your job to raise kids who can function as citizens of our society, kids with a fighting chance of a good life ahead of them. Am I wrong?

Using coolness as a measure of your worth in your children’s eyes is like trying to hold an egg white in your hand – you’re just never going to get a proper grip on it. Because what’s cool is not always good for you. What’s cool comes and goes. What’s cool today may be deeply uncool tomorrow. Coolness is irrelevant in parenting.

Finally, being firm about underage drinking isn’t really a choice – it’s the law. We South Africans are past masters at complaining about all the crime, and then picking and choosing which laws we feel like obeying. A new law is proposed and we say: “Who’s going to enforce it?” We speed, we park illegally, we steal office supplies, we smoke where we’re not supposed to, we drink and drive, we allow our children to drink before they’re 18. And by so doing, we instil a similar mind-set in our children – where it’s okay to break the law just as long as you don’t get caught.

I think whoever is in charge of the strategy on this campaign needs to rethink the questions they ask (and hire a proofreader). There are important conversations to be held on underage drinking, but I’m not sure this is one of them.

You can ring my bell

February 26, 2014 § 7 Comments

I committed a revolutionary act last night. It was my aunt’s birthday, so I picked up the phone and called her.

I didn’t text her first to see if she was available or not, I just called. And on a landline too. She was home, she wasn’t busy, so she answered, and was utterly delighted to hear from me. And given that she’s one of the warmest, sweetest people I know, I was delighted to hear her voice too.

It doesn’t sound like a revolutionary act, does it? And yet, talk to the digitally savvy about Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that WhatsApp will soon carry voice calls as an option and they throw up their hands in dismay. “Does anyone even talk on the phone anymore?” they lament.

That saddens me. The irony in a world that is increasingly dominated by so-called social media, is that we are becoming less and less social. We don’t talk anymore – we text. We spend more time looking at our phones than we do other people’s eyes. (Mea culpa.) And we hardly ever pick up the phone and just call someone to see how they are, tell them we love them, or tell them some news, however trivial it may seem.

In an age when we have all of the communication tools possible available to us, it seems we communicate less and less.

I watch so-called ‘twars’ unfolding on Twitter all the time – they’re hard to avoid unless you only follow quote-spewing accounts. And it’s fascinating to me how often people are saying very similar things, yet they think they’re disagreeing with each other. Chances are, if they were having the same discussion over a meal, or opposite each other in someone’s living room, they’d be agreeing heartily .

Because you see, communication is more than just the words we say or write. And if we’re using Twitter as an example, even the most skilled writers battle to convey their thoughts in a 140-character limit. When we communicate in the written word alone, we are losing out on the auditory cues we pick up from people’s tone of voice, and the visual cues we read from their body language. This makes the ‘social’ part of social media a complete misnomer, and it’s what makes writing so difficult – you only have a third of the communication arsenal at your disposal.

I’ve been a journalist for 20-odd years (gulp) and I still don’t record my interviews. I take notes when I interview people, and to date – touch wood – I have been accused of misquoting somebody once. And that was the one time I had recorded the interview and transcribed it. I quoted the person verbatim, yet she disagreed vehemently with the quote I ascribed to her in the article. Why? Because I had quoted what she said, not what she meant. Body language and voice add layers of meaning that just don’t come through if you simply write down the words.

So this reliance on text to communicate worries me enormously. I fear we are losing our social skills completely. It’s all too easy to bully online – for adults and children. In an online forum, you don’t get the same feedback you’d get from someone if you said those insulting things directly to their face . So it’s easy to dismiss the hurt you might be causing. It’s the most cowardly form of bullying there is, I think.

Or I watch my teenage daughter and her friends with growing concern. They will text each other merrily for hours on end, but put them in a room together, and they don’t know how to have a conversation, or just to hang out together. They are 15 years old and they don’t know how to talk to each other. Within  15 minutes, they are taking photos of each other on their phones and sharing them on social media.

I worry that we are becoming, and raising, a generation of people with no social skills – and not in the ‘which fork to use at dinner’ sense – but in the sense of not having the ability to read another human being from their body language, tone of voice and general demeanour. Yes, we have inbuilt instincts, but a lot of that ability comes from practice. Life is a lot like a big poker game, and it’s important to be able to read the other players so you can decide which cards to play.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop being someone who loves to have a chat over the phone or over a cup of coffee. I don’t see conversation with other human beings – whether for work, play or duty – as an intrusion or a waste of time. I don’t need you to text before you call me, or apologise for disturbing me. Because if I was unable or unwilling to talk to you, I wouldn’t answer. It’s as simple as that.

And I have some wonderful ‘chats’ with people on BBM and SMS and WhatsApp and Facebook and Twitter. But I love to hear the sound of their voices too. There’s nothing I love more. And if I can’t see you in person, I’m happy to settle for hearing your voice. That’s two-thirds of the way to being with someone, which is always first prize.

So at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, if you have something to say, step away from the keyboard. Call me!

Come out and play

February 5, 2014 § 4 Comments

Yesterday I sat in my life coach’s office and bemoaned having every evening free.

I know, I know. And it’s a particularly odd thing to bemoan given that I spent the best part of last year consciously putting down things that brought me no joy. I was completely and utterly burnt out, and stepping away from all of those irksome things allowed me to move a little closer to remembering who I used to be before I was someone’s mother or wife, or daughter, or sister, or friend. Or employee.

I like to be busy. At school I always did two to three extra-murals a day (none of them being sport, however) and I continued that pattern into adulthood. Not having a schedule is an alarming thing for me. I like structure – it helps me to feel in control, and that helps me to cope with my anxiety. If there were an Olympics for worrying, I’d be at the top of podium for every event.

“But I’m wasting time!” I wailed. (I do a lot of wailing at Judy Klipin, who has the patience of a saint.) “I spend far too much time buggering around on Twitter and playing silly word games!”

And do you know what Judy said? She shrugged. And then she pointed out that my playing on Twitter had brought about valuable friendships, work, and artistic collaborations that I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. And it had brought me joy and a lot of fun. And that all of those things were good. So perhaps it wasn’t such a waste of time after all.

And as usual, she was spot on.

That was a revelation in itself, but it also got me thinking. And I realised that it’s actually okay for adults to play. Perhaps that’s obvious to you, but I always feel like I should be doing something productive with every moment of my waking hours. And I’m not really sure why that is, or when I stopped playing.

But perhaps it’s time to give myself permission, and stop feeling guilty for having some fun. I’m allowed, right?

Confessions of a blogger

January 8, 2014 § 11 Comments

Okay, so here’s my sordid little secret: I started blogging because I’ve always wanted a newspaper or magazine column, and no-one’s ever offered me one.

So I started my own, here, partly as a bit of a brand-building exercise, but mostly because I wondered if I had what it took to produce something completely out of my head on a regular basis. And I wondered if anyone would read what I write in the vast ocean of bloggery that exists on the internet. Perhaps there was a good reason I’d never been offered a column.

It started off as a fairly haphazard thing, and then I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to test my competence unless I set a deadline. Which is why I decided that Wednesday would be blogging day, and that I would blog at least once a week. A daily blog seemed too much, a monthly blog too little. But I’ve worked on a weekly newspaper, and even though the deadlines come around pretty quickly, that felt manageable. (In reality, that basically gave me 24 hours in which to publish something each week – being a proper journalist, I seldom start writing anything until the very last minute!)

And perhaps this will sound like a humblebrag, but I am still astounded that just over 600 people follow this blog. Because I don’t offer prizes or give-aways or anything of that nature. These are just word-based snapshots of me.

I write about whatever takes my fancy on a particular Wednesday, whatever has been occupying my mind. There have been the odd rants, a couple of remembrances and other assorted ramblings. And somehow, people seem to enjoy them. It really does astonish me.

It’s been an enormously beneficial process for me, from a number of points of view. It’s my space, first and foremost. No-one tells me what to write, how long it needs to be, or what angle to take. That provides simultaneous freedom and sheer terror. The nature of my day job means that I can write almost anything as long as you give me a good brief, so not having one is a quite anxiety-inducing. It means I have to ask myself what I want to write about – and I don’t always know, as my crowdsourcing of topics (this one included) on Twitter will testify.

I think it has improved my writing. As people have responded to the way I write, it’s given me courage and self-confidence to push myself a little more, experiment with different kinds of posts, really craft the words I produce here, and not just churn out the transactional kind of writing I do on a daily basis.

It has built my personal brand a little – I have had a few offers of work as a direct result of the blog, so that’s been really positive.

I’ve also learned a few lessons along the way. Here they are; perhaps some might help you:

1. Be yourself. Find your own voice. Without wanting to sound all Oprah-ish, it’s about authenticity.

2. Rewrite. Give yourself time and distance from what you’re written if possible, and go back and edit it with a fresh eye. Get it as close to perfect as you are able. Don’t question, just trust me. You’ll thank me later.

3. If you are looking to build a following, and you’re an ordinary Joe or Jane like me, you need to blog regularly. It doesn’t have to be rigid, but if you can blog a couple of times a month at least, you’re more likely to build an audience.

4. Don’t blog too often. Remember that people are assailed by vast amounts of information every day. If blog posts are popping into their mailboxes every five minutes, they are going to delete them without a second glance.

5. Be ruthless about the content you produce – have you tackled the topic in a new way, or from a fresh angle? Ask yourself: “So what?” If you can’t answer that, you’re less likely to engage an audience. And be assured that if you get halfway through the post and think, “Meh!” then so will your readers. I find this the hardest part to get right. Today I started and discarded half a dozen posts because I couldn’t even interest myself in what I was writing. And sometimes I write something and think it’s wonderful, and hardly anyone reads it. Other times I dash something off in a hurry and it gets a big response.

6. Don’t get hung up on the numbers. If you obsess about how many people are reading your posts, you’ll drive yourself nuts.

7. Followers do not equal reads. I have 600-odd followers, but apart from one or two posts, a really good stat for me is about 150-200 reads. More often than not, I get around 50 or 60.

8. Keep on keeping on. It does take a fair amount of discipline to blog regularly – especially when it’s all you and no-one is paying you to do it. And often, life gets in the way. But there’s a reason you started blogging – unless that reason has changed, keep on keeping on.

9. Write for you. Perhaps I’m making an incorrect assumption, but people blog because they enjoy writing in some form. So enjoy it. And bugger what anyone else thinks.

10. Finally, and most importantly, if your blog allows comments, distinguish between honest engagement and trolling. And then repeat after me: don’t feed the trolls.

He said, she said

October 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

You probably don’t know this about me, but I’m supposed to have a Master’s degree in Sociolinguistics. I would, but I chucked it in, and I chucked in because I’m quite happy to do all the reading for a subject, but the data collection and writing up part of things is just deathly dull – especially when you have to write it all up according to some dusty old predetermined formula of research problems and research questions and blah, blah, blah…

Basically, I don’t have a Master’s degree in Sociolinguistics because I’m intrinsically lazy. But I am an armchair sociolinguist, and I love to analyse conversations that go on around me within that framework. And in case you’ve got this far and are thinking, “But what is it, for goodness’ sake?” it is, simply put, the study of the effects that society has on language .

One of the sub-categories of study is the differences in the way that men and women use language, often resulting in huge miscommunication. And in fact, the subject of my would-be thesis was gender-related, so I have a particular interest in this area. That’s why I was highly amused by a short Twitter conversation the other day, after I tweeted that I’d fixed the loose handle on the lid of my Le Creuset casserole with a butter knife, MacGyver-style.

A female follower replied that she’d had similar issues with hers, and two male followers joined in with solutions to the problem, and then discussed the merits of each other’s solutions for a couple of tweets. And I just giggled as it all unfolded, because it fitted so neatly into the way sociolinguists have observed the way we cope with sharing problems across the gender divide.

In broad sweeps – and I think many of us know this intuitively – when women have a problem, they tell their friends, and most of the time their friends nod, listen, agree they have a problem and offer tea and sympathy. They might offer a solution or two, but they start out by just being there and listening. Men, on the other hand, leap straight into the solutions. There’s a problem – it must be fixed. Fixing the problem is all. And it’s why I love this video, It’s Not About the Nail – it sums things up so well.

So here’s a fun bit of useful information (and I don’t recall the study that I read at university many years ago, but I know it exists). Did you know that men and women use agreement words and sounds like ‘Yes’ or ‘uh huh’ in conversation differently? Women use them to signal that they’re listening. Men, however, use them to signal that they agree. So, if you’re talking within your gender group, everyone understands each other. In a mixed gender situation, however, women get frustrated because men use their ‘yes’ less, and women therefore assume they’re not listening. Conversely, men get frustrated because they think women are just agreeing with everything they say and not thinking things through.

And I saw this demonstrated at a 60th birthday party last night, where my friend’s husband stood up and made a speech so full of details about her life that she was gobsmacked. “How did he know all of that stuff?” she asked me. “He must have been on my computer looking it all up.”

“Nope,” I said. “You’ve been married for 38 years now. He’s just been listening all this time.”

She shook her head. “It’s not possible,” she said. “Men never listen.”

So we quizzed him. And you know what? He had.

* If you want to read up more on this subject, Deborah Tannen is the guru in this area and writes very accessible books for the general public.

Content in the shallows

October 9, 2013 § 10 Comments

My daughter is working on a huge project for English, so big that the teacher insisted that each child hand in a section halfway through to ensure everyone was making progress.

My child is diligent and creative, and she spent hours painstakingly putting the first part of her project together, and making a beautiful cover that I know I couldn’t even have conceptualised, let alone executed. And on the appointed day she took her partial project in for its first assessment.

The teacher, by all accounts, cast a cursory eye over the content of the project, gave her 9/10 for the work submitted so far, and sent her away with the admonition that she needed to work a bit more on her presentation.

Even with a good dose of parental bias thrown in, I was gobsmacked. First, what kind of message does that send to a child – that 90% is not good enough? No wonder we have kids committing suicide over school marks.

More concerning, though, was the emphasis on presentation over content that I’ve seen before: a book review earlier in the year had to be presented as a scrapbooked page, for example, and some children were made to redo their page because the scrapbooking wasn’t up to the teacher’s standards. I would be far more concerned with which books the kids had read, and what their impressions were given that the subject is English and not Art, but perhaps that’s just me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m the last person to suggest that things should be presented in a slapdash way. But it got me thinking. All of this is a microcosm of the world we live in, isn’t it? We live in a world where form seems to be trumping content more and more, and I find it desperately sad.

As one wag quipped on Twitter recently, it’s depressing that some people have a favourite Kardashian. Paris Hilton is famous for being famous . People who can’t really sing are making money hand over fist as singers, but they are autotuned in studio to such an extent that their ‘live’ performances either feature them lip syncing to everything, or singing live and making a mess of it. And let’s not even begin to talk about politics, which is all about smoke and mirrors.

I’ve even encountered it in my own career – a few years ago I gave up paying work when a magazine asked me to take the little parenting column I’d been writing for them for years and “make it more boutiquey – feature cute prams and dresses and stuff”. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

I could go on, but there are too many examples. I think it suffices to say that we appear to be getting more and more shallow, and on a global scale.

So, it’s taken me a while to get there, but all of this has relevance for business communication. Think about some of the company websites you encounter. They’re beautiful, they have all the bells and whistles and features that open and shut, until you try to find some useful information, or engage with the content in any way. Within minutes you find yourself floundering in a sea of business buzzwords and platitudes that say precisely nothing and leave you feeling bewildered and confused.

Here’s the thing: if you focus too much on what things look like, and less on what they say or how they work for those reading or engaging with them, one thing is certain – people will move on, and they will move on quickly. The distractions of modern life mean that we imbibe an enormous amount of information daily, and if something is confusing, insubstantial and not useful to us, we move on to the next thing very quickly. And when that happens, you’ve lost a potential client, or perhaps even an existing client.

So I’ll just continue to beat the same old drum in the hope that someone out there finally gets it: content is king, plain language rocks, and adding real value to your clients’ or customers’ lives is what you should be aiming for with your business communication.

Once you’ve done that – and only then – do you start to worry about making it look pretty.

PS. Here’s a free tip: if you have a ‘contact us by email’ form where people can make enquiries, do make sure someone monitors it at least on a daily basis. I can’t tell you how many companies I’ve asked to contact me about a product or a quote and the deafening silence continues years later.

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