Lost in Translation

Have you seen the 2003 movie Lost in Translation? Written and directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Bill Murray as a waning American movie star and Scarlett Johansson who plays a recent college graduate, the film unveils feelings of alienation and isolation in an unfamiliar culture.

Shifting to distance learning is new territory and communicating in this different world doesn’t require acquiring a new language. But, it does help to consider how the change impacts interactions. In a live setting, nonverbal cues play a large role in furthering a message. Hand gestures, eye contact, facial expressions and voice tone can change the meaning of a message. Now take all of those away and ample room for personal interpretation fills the void. The message is easily Lost in Translation.

In an online setting, we communicate significantly through written words in the form of announcements, posts, emails, texts, chats and rubric responses. I have seen numerous times when written responses were misinterpreted. I have seen a couple of teachers respond hurriedly to student questions with short answers. Even though explanations were provided, parents complained that the teacher wasn’t being helpful and some even accused the teacher of being biased against their child.

Towards the end of fall semester last year (yes, life before Covid), we were in our normal busy mode and administrators were asked to prepare some reports. One of my colleagues got behind on a different project and let us know in Skype. I responded, “Let it go, we have enough going on.” To me, I was completely understanding of how she was behind, the project was not a high priority and it could easily be rescheduled. But my colleague viewed my short Skype response differently. She called me and asked, “Are you upset that I haven’t done this?” I was thoroughly surprised with her concern. “Of course not,” I responded. “We all get behind on stuff. Delaying this is not an issue for me at all.”  We discussed a revised, manageable timeline.

These are two examples of how meanings can be misconstrued in an online setting. Recognizing  how easy this can occur makes us aware of how we need to take steps to communicate professionally and clearly to ensure our message is interpreted accurately.

Here’s a guideline:

  1. Start with a greeting.

It is easy to jump into the message, but starting with a simple “Hello” or “Good morning” offers some opening warmth.

2. Respond with positive words and gratitude

Begin responses with gratitude for reaching out with terms like:

  • “I’m glad you are asking…”
  • “Thank you for checking on…”
  • “I appreciate you are following up on…”
  • “I’m happy to see you were working on….”

3. Use complete sentences and avoid commands

Responses like “read the chapter and download the worksheet” sound dictatorial without a smile or pointing to a lesson. Instead, try “This week’s assignment is reading chapter x and completing the worksheet. You can download the worksheet in our online course.” Yes, it takes a few more keystrokes now, but saves a lot of headaches later.

4. Proof before sending or posting

Everyone makes typos and autocorrect doesn’t necessarily make the correct correction! Check your communications before sending for grammar errors and to make sure your directions are clear.

5. A picture tells a thousand words

Include screen captures with directions where appropriate. Pin the snipping tool to your taskbar and paste in. (Be sure to block out any sensitive information and stay FERPA friendly.)

6. Save drafts

If you are working after hours, save responses as a draft and send in the morning. I recommend this for two reasons:

  • The receiver may have more questions and will expect an after-hours response. Even if you are a night owl, set a boundary when families can and can’t reach you. Otherwise, someone will expect a response anytime of day.
  • Your response may not be the desired answer so you are sending unwelcomed messages when they cannot be acted upon.

I have some colleagues that use the delay function in email. I don’t use this because I’ve had times when I decide to edit or change my   response before the delivery time.

7. Just Call

If it is sensitive, controversial, or difficult to explain, pick up the phone. The spoken explanation can eliminate miscommunication and you can answer related questions. Even more impactful, the parent or colleague will sense that you cared enough to follow up and the effort will be appreciated. If there’s no answer and I really need to get a response, I send a follow up email and open with saying that I tried to call (and left a message). At least then, the parent knows that I did try. Also, I have never had a parent say, “Why did you call me?”, but we all can think of a time when we could have asked “Why didn’t you call me?”

Taking a few extra minutes to ensure written communications are clear and positive is another step in showing you care and helps to build a sense of community in the virtual world.

Here’s Grammarly’s tips for a good email.

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