On a day-to-day level, the way we interact with the people around us is shaped by our expectations, which are rooted in our experience. Most adults experience more regular and intensive contact with adults of roughly the same age as them. It is no surprise then – as a cursory glance at any multigenerational Twitter row over the past decade clearly demonstrates – that our expectations tend to be skewed towards how our own age group expresses themselves.

This is not only evident on social media. Business insiders are quick to point out both the benefits and the challenges of a multigenerational workforce. Communication is a key factor, here. There are subtle differences in how different generations use language.

Sometimes it’s a matter of unfamiliar words or peculiar grammatical constructions. Former UK prime minister David Cameron famously alternated between signing off with “DC” – clearly, his initials – and “LOL”, in text messages he was sending to the media executive Rebekah Brooks. The two are roughly the same age but one seems to have been much more up on text speak than the other. He thought this meant “lots of love”, Brooks explained in 2012 “until I told him it meant ‘laugh out loud’ and then he didn’t sign them like that any more”.

Often, though, it stems from a misinterpreted intonation or a misunderstood intention. It is not the meaning of the words used that causes the confusion, but how you said them.

When we speak, we convey information by all kinds of means besides the words we choose – volume and speed of speaking, facial expressions, body language, tone of voice. These are what linguists call “paralinguistic channels”. “I’m fine” thus comes across very differently when said in a happy voice than in a flat monotone, or when accompanied by exaggerated thumbs-up or other gestures.

In writing, things are more fraught. What internet linguist Gretchen McColloch, in her book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, calls the “typographical tone of voice” is harder to convey, possibly because writing uses only one channel, the written word itself.

Credit: via Pixabay.

Typographical tone

Billions of emails and texts are sent every day – an estimated 320 billion and 23 billion, respectively. Research shows some quite consistent (and intuitive) ways in which people have communicated their intent through the ages.

If McCulloch points to text written in all caps, for instance, as expressing strong feelings, all-caps text has widely been meant and understood as shouting since the middle of the 20th century at least. Its use is documented as early as the 1850s: The Yorkville Enquirer of April 17 1856 describes a Dutchman “shout(ing) it out in capital letters”.

Context, however, is key. We interpret as shouting an all-caps email (“DON’T DO THAT AGAIN”), but not necessarily a sign (“PAPER AND CARDBOARD ONLY”).

Research has shown that the limitation in writing can, in fact, flip the intended effect completely. An emailed request in grammatically correct, clear and polite language (“Please tell me when we can meet”) can come across as rude if the recipient is used to more indirect wording (“I wonder if you could find time to meet with me”).

That is before you consider the power of punctuation. The journalist Grace Seger went viral in 2019 with a tweet describing her very cautious approach to using the right exclamation-point-to-full-stop ratio in work emails:

When texting or posting, an older person might use the standard punctuation rules they were taught in school, merely intending to present themselves as “proper” or to show respect to their recipients.

As a younger person, by contrast, you might be used to texting or posting without much punctuation. When receiving a overly punctuated text message, you might assume there’s a strong and serious reason for it – a hidden meaning.

In a 2018 piece entitled “Why… do old people… text… like this…? An investigation…”, tech journalist Paris Martineau reported on the bafflement caused among young people by what she called their parents’ “chronic ellipsis overuse”. As one Twitter user Martineau quoted put it: “Why do old people use ellipses so much? My mom tells me she loves me and it sounds like she thinks I’m a huge disappointment.”

Women use their mobile phones at a restaurant in Erbil in Iraq in this photograph from 2018. Credit: Reuters.

Hidden meaning

We all know that irony and sarcasm are hard to convey in writing. Research shows, however, that we are in fact more likely to write something snarky than we are to say it. Here, the presumption of meaning behind non-standard features in text (that is, the elements that are not the words) is quite useful.

Written markers for irony or sarcasm arise quickly in a given community or interaction, to signal to the reader that there’s a meaning behind the words. This may be as explicit as an eye-rolling emoji or an obvious hashtag, say, #sarcasm

It might also be more subtle. You might capitalise some words (going on a big date is serious, but “a Big Date” is meant ironically). You might blatantly under-emphasise other words (a single “yay”). Or, and contrary to the above-mentioned overuse of the ellipsis, you might just make a pointed use of three full stops to point to something left unsaid, which, as McCulloch has said, “could also come across as passive-aggressive in a certain context”. She gives “I can do that…” as an example, explaining that that “could mean they can do that but don’t necessarily want to”.

None of these are necessary to communicate the literal meaning of the written message. Instead, they tell the reader them to look for an additional, hidden – or inferred – meaning.

But you have to know to know. If you do not know, you are lost. Research has shown how both humans and computers struggle to consistently identify sarcasm or irony in writing, because there are no universal features of sarcastic language. How we choose to express it depends on the subject and the cultural context of what we’re discussing, as much as it does on personal preferences. Thus, even innocuous messages can be misunderstood as offensive.

When we notice that we have misunderstood someone or that they have misunderstood us, everyone benefits from a quick clarification. Not only does it improve the present situation, it also helps to avoid future pickles and broaden everyone’s experience base, which is valuable in itself.

Daniel Bürkle is Senior Lecturer in Psycholinguistics, University of Central Lancashire.

This article was first published on The Conversation.