Choose Your Words

Perception acts as a filter through which all communication passes as it travels from one person to the next.” – John Schermerhorn, Exploring Management

As the quote above implies, communication is heavily influenced by the perception of the communicators. When communicating face-to-face, one can use a combination of nonverbal cues, such as body language and facial expressions, and verbal cues, such as emphasis and tone, to help convey a message and gauge how it is received. But in a fully online course, where asynchronous written exchanges are the primary mode of communication, there are no nonverbal or verbal cues. Further, online tools do not always facilitate visual communication techniques, such as font, color, or spacing, which might acts as cues. Therefore, the choice of the words and phrasing is an important consideration when communicating in an online course.

At the United States Distance Learning Association’s 2015 Annual Conference, Dr. Douglas Barkey presented research he conducted at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in a session titled, “Student Perceptions of Instructor Credibility Based On Instructor Communication In an Exclusively Internet-based Learning Environment.” Dr. Barkey looked at factors of perceived credibility, including competence, trustworthiness, and perceived caring. Here are some of Dr. Barkey’s prescriptions for improving perception of instructor credibility, which we in the Online Learning Center think are also good suggestions for students and others engaging in written communication.

1. Rephrase in positive, professional, and immediate terms. From the presentation, “the choice of vocabulary carries significance beyond content and the frequent use of aggressive, negative, positive, or immediacy-related terms creates a learning environment that influences student perceptions of instructor credibility.” Though phrases like “don’t forget” and “I’m concerned that” may be intended to help students, the overall impression can be negativity and aggression. Instead, try phrases that communicative positivity and immediacy, such as “please remember,” “help,” “better,” “recommend,” and “requirement.” Here is the full list of words that were defined for each category:

Aggressive: need, sorry but, want, make sure, must, concerned

Negativity: don’t, avoid, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, wrong, bad

Immediacy: help,glad,excited, sorry, feel, example, agree, thoughts

Politeness: thanks, may, welcome, please, suggest, appreciate, consider

Positivity: well, awesome, creative, unique, potential, excellent, fine, perfect, good, great, best, strong, wonderful, pleasure, nice, beautiful, strength, smart, compelling, wow

Professionalism: professional, recommend, assessment, evidence, deliverable, deadline, specifications, quality,
skills, due, required, industry, success, better, correct

2. Find a balance between being verbose and abrupt. An excessively long message, if read at all, may seem like a disregard for the receiver’s time. An excessively short message may seem abrupt and communicate a lack of interest. Find ways to be concise, while also fully addressing all of the student’s questions. Being polite, asking the student follow-up questions, and sharing relevant resources are perceived positively by students, and are therefore good strategies to pad a response that might otherwise seem abrupt.

3. Use sarcasm and jokes sparingly. It is not easy to deliver sarcasm and jokes in written form. Have you ever offended someone you know quite well with a joke via text message or instant message? Consider how difficult it can be to understand sarcasm or jokes when there isn’t a well-developed rapport, the humor is unexpected, and there are no cues (e.g., emojis) to aid the receiver. The reward may not be worth the risk of creating a dispute or alienating a student.

4. Responding within 24-48 hours communicates caring. In the study, students appreciated receiving a relatively timely response. Timeliness can be offset by the appearance of being abrupt (see above). Therefore, if given the choice between responding immediately with one or two sentences on your phone and waiting until later to send a fully-developed answer, favor the latter.

The next time you’re writing to a student, a colleague, or an employer, think about your word usage. Are your word choices matching your intent to appear credible, competent, trustworthy, and caring?