The words we text must convey the right message all by themselves

A message sent with a picture can come across wrong when the photograph cannot be opened

Words have meaning in context. Photograph: Thinkstock

Words have meaning in context. Photograph: Thinkstock

Tue, Jul 15, 2014, 01:00

The group text message I sent out had a photograph of my smiling husband, celebrating his final radiotherapy session with a glass of wine. It was meant to reassure but it caused unnecessary grief for some friends.

People who didn’t have smartphones received only a brief text. It said: “Dad on 29 May”. Words without the picture communicated an unintended message. Some people read “dead” and jumped to the conclusion that they were being informed of Colm’s premature demise.

It’s understandable that people got the wrong message. Words have meaning when they are in context. When someone is terminally ill, family and friends may be in such a highly emotional state that wrong assumptions are made. Miscommunication can easily happen because language is such an unreliable resource.

My husband Colm had inoperable tumours for years. He coped amazingly well with a positive attitude to living with cancer. He was monitored with CAT scans every few months and believed his condition was stable.

Then overnight, without warning, he developed what his oncologist called “a galloping cancer”.

Despite intensive radiotherapy, lesions on the spine caused paralysis from the waist down. After diagnosis he had a couple of down days.

He reflected on how his life would be if he stayed wallowing in a miserable place, feeling sorry for himself. He decided that there was more to life than feeling depressed and made a positive decision to make the best of a dire situation.

His first step was to have a big “No Worry Zone” notice put on the door of the hospital room. He told visitors, “Don’t bring worry in here. It’s not going to help me and will upset you. Bring me a smile.”

My husband’s favourite drink is a certain XO brandy. My brother treated him to a small bottle of a different brand. He invited him do a double-blind test to see which XO tasted better.

My brother couldn’t let the situation pass without taking a photograph, to preserve for posterity, Colm imbibing “the opposition’s” brandy.

Believing that he was doing the right thing, he also decided to send a group text with this image. My brother’s positive intention was to share the happy picture. The caption he inserted was, “Taken today”.

I was chatting to his wife telling her about my group text fiasco when my brother showed us the message he had just sent out. He was greeted with a horrified, “What have you done?”

It’s so easy to assume that because you and I speak the same language, we will attach the same meaning to the words we use. Frequently we don’t. When you receive a text, take care not to make assumptions that reflect your greatest fear.

There is a developing trend to communicate news of births and deaths by text or through other social media. If this is your practice, learn from my experience. Check that the words you text communicate the right message.

Carmel Wynne is life and work skills coach, cross professional supervisor, NLP master practitioner and author.

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