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No, Seriously? I Was Kidding

by Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal
Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal
I recently read an article which told how Harvard or some other eminently respectable institution conducted a study which found that over 50% of the time humor in emails is misinterpreted or missed entirely. Because of the lack of facial cues, intonation and body language. Presumably not because the emails were not funny in the first place. I happen to know that this is often true. Maybe more often than 50% of the time. Either that, or I am way not funnier than average. Smiley face. I had a big tiff with someone once because I thought I was being funny, I thought that the thing I was saying was so obviously absurd that nobody in their right mind could take it seriously, but I was wrong. The person took it seriously and felt grievously wounded as a result. That misunderstanding was the beginning of the end for us. I am trying to be brave.

I am also trying to remember not to try to be funny, except when I am supposed to be. For example, I am no longer allowed to say anything at staff meetings. My rule, but I am sure my boss agrees with it. If I want to be funny in an email I always make sure to add, "HAHA just a big fat ol' joke, kidding around, just joshin', smiley face, grinny face, desperate not to be misunderstood face." Which seems to work okay. But I need to quit trying to be funny on the phone with strangers too. Because while they will certainly have my vocal cues they do not know me and will not be able to interpret those cues. They will not be able to see my facial expression, the wry lift of my eyebrow, the little self-deprecating smile, and there are, as yet, no emoticons for use on the phone. Not counting text messaging. My heavens, the world has gotten complicated!!! A person can't even have a good old fashioned rant anymore without saying "except for this" and "except for that." Sheesh.

On with my rant. I embarrassed myself very much on the phone just now. I was trying to reorder prescriptions from our (mandatory and exceedingly inconvenient) mail-order prescription company. The company uses a voice prompt system. Everything was okay for the first prescription, smooth as glass. Then we got to the second prescription. "Please state the prescription number found on the top right hand corner of the label." Well, the person I was ordering that refill for wasn't home and I didn't have the number. "I don't have the number" I stated in a clear voice. "I'm sorry. I didn't get that. Please state the prescription number." Oh boy! This was going to be a problem. "AAAAYYYYY doooooon-TAH haaaaavvviiiii-TAH." I was trying to be clear, but I already knew that I needed a human bean. Smiley face. "My abject apologies. I was not able to understand that. Please hold for an operator." Hallelujah! "I'm sorry. I did not get that." Of course not, you are a godless computer program with impeccable manners and a very annoying and yet strangely hypnotizing voice! Smiley face.

Finally, I got the human operator and she got me all fixed up in a matter of minutes. Oh yeah! That's what I like! Good old fashioned human efficiency. "Thank you, Crystal! You were sure a lot more help than that robot I was talking to before." I was joking. I know it wasn't a robot. I know it was a computer program. But good old efficient Crystal did not have any facial cues to work with. "Oh no, ma'am. That was not a robot. It was our automated voice prompt computer program. You see ma'am, while there are robots which work in such industries as manufacturing, mining and even deep sea exploration, we have not yet developed the technology to create robots who can listen to a customer and then follow a decision tree with complete accuracy. We here at MediMailCo know how important the human touch is in business."

And then she said, "Beep." I swear she did. I'm absolutely sure that she did. Only, I had no facial cues to judge by. So, now I don't know if I feel really embarrassed because she thinks I am an idiot, or really scared because MediMailCo is obviously run by super intelligent robots who are probably planning to take over the world, or really pleased that the operators at my prescription company are efficient and funny. Perplexed face.
Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal
"The Girl Detective's Theory of Everything" >
September 1, 2006 Column
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