Texting, E Mailing- What do they mean?

1 Dec

If someone hasn’t shared with you a text or e mail and asked “what do you think this means?” then I’m guessing you’re only visiting this time period. The reason this question is asked so frequently is the natural constraints of sharing words and labels; and the more we communicate at a distance, the greater the general level of uncertainty, and anxiety, becomes.

Each word we use has a reservoir of potential meanings (see Caputo, 1997). When someone uses the word cat, numerous different cats will appear in the minds of numerous different people. Each imagined cat will have numerous different associations attached to it, such as “my cat” or “next door’s cat which I hate”. It’s the context, real or substituted from experience, which sifts through the reservoir of potential meanings for each word\label and then anchors a meaning. This is essential, as it allows human beings to communicate and share experiences. However, problems arise when the word or label is potentially vital to success, and the context, is left up for grabs. In other words, the word ends up meaning several different things to several different people. The unique context applied by several different people to anchor the meaning of the word, naturally leads to several different associations such as “important”, “not a priority” or “drop everything and do it now”. The result is a diverse set of actions, none of which may be correct.

Leaving a crucial word to the mercy of free association is not a good idea in high risk environments. Weick and Sutcliffe (2007) in their research on High Reliability Organisations (such as Nuclear Power Plants) discuss at length that organisations which are capable of recovering quickly from shocks avoid “simplifying labels” (ibid). In other words, they doubt their interpretation of the context to maintain adaptability and preparation for updating, they do not fully commit to the meaning of a word or label because it might have to change quickly.

I’ve encountered similar to the above when researching high cost software sold on the basis of being “smart” or “clever”, the labels had value but were so open to interpretation they are effectively meaningless, resulting in dissatisfied customers. I also encountered similar during research with novice social care professionals; the plans they (the social care professionals) produced in scenarios frequently contained labels which sounded credible, but when pressed the labels had no defined meaning. Acting on some interpretations of the labels would have been potentially disastrous; they needed the context more clearly defining.

So, back to text and e mail; when the relationship between the sender and receiver is emotionally charged and\ or the stakes are high then the problems of text and e mail are aggravated- quite often we are forced to guess the context. In attempting to guess the correct context, as we mentally file through possibilities, the meaning of the words change, increasing our cognitive load and sensations of stress. If you settle on a context, it won’t stick because you’ll also be aware that you’re working off nothing but a guess. Sharing the text or e mail will help broaden the frame and potentially drag you away from fixating on a specific meaning, but this isn’t always possible or advisable. Instead go with your first gut instinct, and then prepare to be proven wrong (this should significantly reduce guessing time). The emphasis is on being prepared, this is the back bone of recovery, maintaining enough elasticity in your beliefs that they will recover from stressors and not be sunk by them.

If you write strategies, plans, procedures and processes imagine alternative ways in which key words and labels could be interpreted by someone having to guess the context. When doing this place an emphasis on the question- what DON’T I want to happen? Then take measures to de-risk against this by defining the boundaries of context more clearly. Klein (2007) referred to this question (what don’t I want) as “anti- goals” and identifying both the goals and anti-goals of your plan, and making both public, help to define more reliable parameters for context. The key is placing boundaries around potential interpretation of context whilst allowing enough room for improvisation, adapting and updating.


Klein, G (2007) The Power of Intuition. Currency

Caputo, John D. (ed.) (1997) Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida. New York: Fordham University Press

Weick, K. E.,& Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in and Age of Uncertainty, Second Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

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