It’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it

At TalDansk we use webcams to conduct our conversations, and there are a lot of really good reasons for that. One of them is that about 70% (at least that’s what I heard) of all the information you convey whilst talking is not in the words you use, but the way you present them. Coincidently, this is also the reason why smilies were invented; to let the person you are texting know whether you were smiling, frowning, sticking out your tongue, wearing sunglasses or having heart-shaped eyes while you were texting.

So smilies are great for conveying meaning, but webcams are even better. Here is one thing the webcam does for you while you tell your conversation partner your new year’s resolutions.

Intonation

The microphone captures the tone of your voice while you speak, and it can hardly be overrated how important the way you say things is for what you actually communicate. Despite the “it’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it” comeback being irritating and all, it’s true most of the time. How you intonate while talking can let people know whether you are being dead serious or sarcastic, supportive or dismissive, or just in general what your mood is whilst talking. It helps get the message across.

This is only part of the story though. Intonation provides an indispensable extra layer of meaning on top of the words you actually utter, but in special instances, in intercultural communication, this extra layer of meaning might not serve to clarify what you mean, but instead, obfuscate it severely. A friend who studied English told me that the very flat and monotone standard Danish intonation made it very easy for English-speaking people to assume that we were somewhatangry or depressedall the time. I would like to state for the record, that this couldn’t be further from the truth. We are even happy when we complain about stuff, and thank god for that, because we can complain a lot.

It’s important to be conscious of how intonation can be misinterpreted when you interact with people from other cultures. I spent a lot of time with a bunch of Americans once, and I quickly got the feeling that the subtle Danish sarcasm engrained in most of what I said didn’t translate. So, in order not to come off as an asshole, I had to make an effort to only express in words what I actually meant, which made me feel somewhat conversationally handicapped, but less of an asshole. All in all, a fair trade off I guess.

Stefan

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