Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Speaking to your in-group

Judith Meskill digs into the past and finds a gem, in Social Hindrance or Social Necessity? Her post focuses on the 14-point "Social computing checklist" from At what cost pervasive? A social computing view of mobile computing systems. I admit my eye was drawn toward this:
At a fundamental level, humans think about social groups in terms of "us" vs "them," or the groups that "I am in" (in-groups) and those that "I am not in" (out-groups). Members and markers of an in-group are often favored and those of an out-group are often disparaged. Individuals may resist adopting a technology if it is associated with an out-group, and the technology itself may be a powerful marker in identifying group membership.
This seems obvious, but it's worth keeping at the forefront when designing for or interacting with a particular group. Group markers can include the language, patterns of speech and writing, colloquialisms, world-perspectives (religion, politics) and all the artifacts that may be associated with the group (hair, music, transportation, technology devices). Getting too many wrong and you can isolate members of the group you are trying to reach.

Once, I misjudged the marker of a group by a long shot. I was fairly new to managing online groups of any size and I had a group of volunteers helping out. One night, I wanted to talk to two (they had just handled a pretty sticky conflict resolution issue and I was all hot to get a report), but blew past two others and asked to be left in private. I should mention at this point that this was in the WorldsAway virtual environment so there was a physical presence. The social marker that had developed among my volunteers was to always stop, take a moment to say hello and let each other know what they were currently doing. Because I sped past two without a word and asked for privacy without explaining why, I had behaved as an outsider and undermined some of the trust they had in me. Well, I wound up spending several hours late that night sorting things out, apologizing and immediately changed my behavior to include writing markers (which included a *lot* of smilies and gestures that I was not used to using).

Luckily, this lesson has stuck and now, working with parents, I've learned that formal language is the language of the school administrations, lawyers, and officials--definitely an out-group. I've dropped formal language in all my communications with parents on our boards. I make sure that I participate in group congatulations (births, school placements, child successes) because it's a behavior that marks the in-group. On the other hand, I use very formal (but not disparaging) language when I am writing to someone so blatantly advertising or antagonizing others to establish they are not welcome.


  1. Nice post Scott. I'm curious about how your employer views your informal tone? I've seen many organizations assume that formal language is the only way to communicate, especially in writing. It's foreign to talk to customers so informally and such a practice raises eyebrows. Have you seen this too?

  2. Absolutely, I have seen organizations look down on informal writing especially to customers. I happen to be lucky in that my employer has the goal of wanting to present themselves as trusting and comfortable to parents so, in general, our communications are probably less formal than other organizations.

    I wouldn't recommend informal writing if you are working with a community of professionals who are gathering in a professional capacity. There is a time and place for formal and informal writing.

    If I were working with an organization that was resistant to using informal language when it was the language their customers were using, I would first try marketing since this sort of thing does blend into their work and they might more readily see the value of building a rapport with customers. From there, I would try to see who else is amiable to the idea and encourage them to write informally as much as they can. Build it slowly. There might be a few hold outs, but if you have enough people talking to customers on their level, the over all impact will be a benefit.

    And if there is firm enforcement from the top levels of the organization of formal-only language stifling attempts to speak to customers at their own level, I'm not sure. If I know how to alter the minds of top-level management, I think I might be on a different path than I am right now. :)

    This reminded me of an anecdote about the power of informal language. Years and years ago, I was working on phone tech support for a computer company. I was able to fix most of the problems that came to me on the first call. I was fast and efficient. Hello, let me take over, done. My manner was very controlling and no-nonsense. Right next to me was a guy who would take longer to finish his calls, not always have the solution by the end of the call and he would have to call the customer two or three times to work out the problem. He also always chatted with customers --talked about the weather or what they were planning for the weekend. Funny thing, he always got letters of praise and people would actually ask for him if they had a new problem. I, on the other hand, got maybe one praise letter in three years. Who do you think built the better brand and better influenced the chances a customer would buy more products?

  3. Interesting example Scott- about your experience with phone support. I'd say that your neighbor was good for the brand and image among customers. I think people build impressions on the total experience- even if it shows the incompetence of the staff.

    However, that's a paradox, because my bet is that your boss saw it differently. I doubt your boss saw a connection between informal language and brand image. To the manager, I'm thinking it was all about how you were doing it. True?

  4. I had two bosses, one who was as concerned about letters coming in (the person with the most "kudos" letters each month got a small reward) as well as call times and call completion. He also understood using people to their best advantage so I was moved into a second-tier position pretty quickly where my short efficient answers were to techs such as my neighbor and they handled the brand building.

    However, when that boss left, the new boss was very focused on call times and punctuality. Rather than thrive in such an environment, I left (for various reasons, punctuality being the key one as my friends all know). My neighbor and others like him wound up shifting to other parts of the company or leaving altogether during the next couple of years.

    I guess my thoughts on the subject is that one ignores talking plainly to their customers at their own peril.