Who *are* you behind your online words?

A friend I knew had made her first foray into the online dating scene a few years ago. A confident urban young woman with a lot of poise, she was receiving a lot of requests for connections. One guy in a particular profile managed to email her directly. She showed it to me with a giggle. It read something like this:

Every morning I wake up smiling with the sun shining on my face and a smile and a song on my lips. I drive dancing to the tune of the radio on my way to work. I bring joy and happiness to those around me all day at work and when the sun goes down I get in touch with my spiritual side as my (light) head hits the pillow at the end of a glorious day.

Okay. Perhaps he didn’t mention his light head but the email was something very much like the one above.

English: A photo of a sun hot air balloon.

I seem to remember that with all that sunshine in his life, he was wearing a pair of very dark glasses in the profile picture heroically holding a fish that he had caught from some water body behind him.

What can a person’s written language tell us about them as people if we don’t know them at all? Are we right to make an assessment about a person solely based on the way they come across through their writing? For example, would it be right to assume that the guy above is either silly or over-the-top or working too hard to impress? Were we right to giggle?

Our language use in the age of the internet is becoming increasingly important in our daily lives even for those who do not particularly have much to do with the fanciful or the literary. We have to put ourselves in front of people in a million ways through our writing online. Our ubiquitous online presence through pictures and words tell both known and unknown people who we are.

Our words are all over the internet– on social media through what we have written about ourselves on our profiles, on comments on other people’s posts, on picture captions, on professional profiles, on tweets, on recipes, on posts tagged by other people and in so many other places. Even the absence of our presence online conveys a message about us.

Most of us write objective content on such forums (when we are not revealing facts about ourselves) thinking these facts will be read as separate from us as people. But when we comment awwww or OMG! we might be conveying impressions about ourselves to people who have never known us. They might be expecting us to say Cho Chweet next given the right provocation.

As we are increasingly forced to make judgments regarding people based on these first impressions, not just in the realm of dating or job hiring but also for finding group members, friends, casual acquaintances or interesting people to “follow” online, are we determining our relationships with people based on word usage as well?

This is especially true of people we’ve known via their web presence only but often we see new sides of people’s we’ve  known traditionally as well. We see aspects of these people online we never knew existed before thanks to the internet. For example, our quiet classmate might reveal herself to be a secret romantic through status updates or our surly neighbour might turn out to have a witty side on his comments. Our writing today carries more weight in determining our everyday lives and relationships in a way it hadn’t before.

Xprs Yrself
Xprs Yrself (Photo credit: Paull Young)

This got me thinking. How have I made assumptions (fairly or unfairly) about people based on their language use alone on the internet?

If the person uses excessive cliches, my tendency at first has been to think of them as sort of excessively empty headed but I’ve often found such assumptions incorrect in real life. Often such people have just turned out not confident enough about their grasp over language to use fresh or  innovative words, that’s all. So they went the much paved path of cliches on their way to literary hell.

If the person hasn’t cared the least about grammar in comments or posts I’ve begun to wonder if they could also be careless and irresponsible. Could it be that they knew correct usage but were not detail oriented enough to bother with the apostrophes and the tenses? Or could it be that grammar was beyond their grasp? Or were they writing from a mobile device and trying to convey meaning in as few keystrokes as possible? What did those ellipses every few words mean? Could they be missing words? Were they hoping I’d read their mind?

The doppelgänger of this totally ungrammatical or non-grammatical person has also been the bane of my life–the determined driver on that way to rhetorical hell.  A Grammar Nazi, this person has had every period, every comma, every part of speech in its place until I’ve felt a personal text was a runaway paragraph from my high school geography textbook. He always writes the same way he’s been trained be it an email, a text or a handwritten card. Sometimes that has made me wonder if this person could also be excessively planned in real life, non-spontaneous, overly detail oriented, perhaps unemotional? Or could it be just that this person is better at grammar than I am?

Then again there is the person who never writes anything much at all. He is there in all online social places and says close to nothing but is present everywhere watching. He is the modern-day equivalent of the guy covered in the coat and hat pulled over his face always sitting at the local pub with a beer in the corner never uttering a syllable.

He probably has a  line or two in the about section of his social media profile with only basic details. He never writes captions for his pictures or comments on them. He only hits “like” or uses emoticons to leave his trace. He answers messages in monosyllables from his mobile device. His presence is a non-presence, yet his silence either intrigues or irritates.

What other kinds of people have you noticed online?

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30 thoughts on “Who *are* you behind your online words?”

  1. The attention seeker: They either post vague posts that hint at some unknown (to you, the reader) disaster as a cry for help or smug posts about how fantastic their life is, often accompanied with pictures of them looking happy and glamorous in some enviable setting. The most annoying thing is that both ploys seem to work. (I also judge people’s friends on their responses.) The vague cries for help are met with ‘oh no, what’s wrong?’ or ‘hope ur OK’ or ‘call me!’ and the smug posts somehow glean responses of praise, such as ‘you look amazing’ or something more uncomfortable, like ‘hot stuff ;)’

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  2. Here’s Stephen Fry’s response to “grammar Nazis”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7E-aoXLZGY
    Thanks for your interesting post. I try to be more aware of my language snobbery. As an English teacher I can’t help noticing typos and incorrect or inelegant word use but try not to rush to judgment. As you noted, they might be on a mobile device, or English may not be their first language, or they just may not have logorrhea (a Stephen-Fry-ism) as I do.

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  3. I enjoyed your breakdown of different online types. Personally, I don’t pay too much attention to grammatical or spelling errors in comments – I figure people are really busy and and am honored that they took the time to share their thoughts in the first place. I also don’t want to be too harsh on those who speak other languages primarily.

    Grammatical and spelling errors in a post are a bit more distracting. I would like to think they would have been polished. Again, if I know English is not the writer’s language, I’m much more forgiving. They are learning.

    I have seen the person who doesn’t write much at all. There are a few gravatars that I seem to see under “likes” on every site I go to. Likes are always nice, but I adore comments because I get to see more of the people behind the gravatar.

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  4. Interesting ideas and thoughts! sometime i found blogger only hits “like” or uses emoticons to leave his trace. that is a pity

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  5. I think online, we are the sums of our posting parts. Everyone obviously has secrets, no matter what we share out. trying to know or understand a person simply based on what that person has posted might be an exercise in futility. Although, even in sharing something like this – tho I don’t do it very often – I might step very tentatively into the spotlight for but a brief moment.
    But, admittedly, I’m not very outgoing. I do prefer the seclusion a bit more although I also want to break out of this…
    I’m just very wary.
    maybe.
    Does what I write truly define me? Especially if in writing, you are adopting a different persona at the same time?

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  6. I love your take on online personalities. I’m very analytical… except when I’m not.. and I must say you’ve gone further than I have in analysis of people’s online self expression.

    I tend to express my mind more on the internet than in the outernet. The internet is my mind’s playground, with respect for others playing there. So people who know me from the internet probably would not recognise me in the outernet. I am more bold on the internet than in real life. I think. I could be wrong.

    So how does this apply to you? How do you see your internet self versus who you are elsewhere?

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  7. Interesting ideas and thoughts! I ponder this topic often. I think in the very least, many people should strive to be grammatical in order to show respect to our language and to make a positive impression whether or not they have the ability to be a good writer. Thanks for writing this!

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  8. I consider myself a recovering grammar Nazi. Sort of. Language shifts, whether we like it or not, and the written is far slower to adapt than the spoken. Right now, language is adapting at a crazy fast rate (I am only assuming that this is also true for languages other than English, but it seems reasonable to think so) because there are more of us writing and getting our words out there for others to read than there ever has been before. And everyone has a unique online voice that is probably different than their (likely) more formal voice that shows up in print media. I, for instance, never begin a sentence with “And” except, of course, for when I do. And frequently online.

    So I am trying to be more forgiving of both myself and others. Though offensive language really gets to me. I don’t mind its use if it’s called for, which is maybe .0001% of the time that it is actually used.

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    1. You know, I never started a sentence with “And” before. I do now, online. I try to write as how I would speak. Aside from holding back on expletives, I am arranging my words as I never would do if I were, say, writing a letter or essay.

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    1. HA… I am going to do the same! Great topic. I’m not feeling WordPress’ daily prompt today. I am a natural proofreader and can’t help noticing even the smallest typos. I actually got a proofreading gig by “gently” pointing out mistakes of an online book. Turns out English is not the first language of the author and he welcomed the critique.

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  9. Your observations are correct and I may fall into one of those categories. However, I have noticed the compulsive talkers, ‘ranters’ and chatters and I normally feel overwhelmed by such individuals. In fact, as a principle on twitter, I unfollow anyone who is constantly on my TL without giving me room to read from others 🙂

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  10. I’m always amazed at how many people want to be published authors and yet they can’t put a proper sentence together. As a teacher, it also irks me when I see a spelling mistake or incomplete sentences. Having said that, I am more forgiving with some of my followers when they come from countries where English is not their first language. In fact, I’m usually in awe that they tackle the English language as well as they do. I couldn’t imagine writing anything in German or French, two languages that I am somewhat familiar with.

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  11. I leave the judging to a higher power. At least I do try to do so. I have a sweet brother who has learning disabilities and his writing is atrocious. He rarely uses a period and his spelling is often incorrect. He puts his heart into what he writes, but some people have criticized him for his grammar shortcomings. But does that mean that he has nothing to say? I think not.

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  12. I admit I`m a bit of a “language cop”, which I feel is a result of being a writer as well as an avid reader.

    For truly offensive use of the language – as opposed to offensive language – read the comments that often follow articles in the online editions of newspapers. The abuse of words, in both spelling and intended meaning is horrifying, and frequently completely overwhelms what may be a valid observation on the topic.

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  13. Very true about how people’s words, especially on social media, can be a reflection of who they are, or aren’t. Personally though, what irks me is someone who is trying to make a valid or serious point about a hot-button topic, or something socially relevant, and their spelling and grammar is terrible. Originally, that would make me disregard their point. If they can’t be bothered to express themselves properly, why should I consider their point? But your blog will remind me to think twice, and give them the benefit of the doubt.

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  14. I love this discussion. I definitely judge people by their online ‘persona’ – especially the grammatically-challenged (I can’t help it! I’m an English teacher!) But I’m convicted about that. Judging anyone – by appearances online or otherwise – is somewhat dangerous. While I think we do reveal something ourselves by our online words (and I think we should take some responsibility for how we represent our selves), there’s always more than meets the eye.

    I do this mostly on Facebook (the judging I mean). Maybe because there are pictures, too, along with the words….selfies, duck-faces, bad grammar…all lead me to negative conclusions, usually.

    And, I think my neurotic tendencies come out on mine, but no one would no it but me. I tend to be careful, cautious, calculated…so, my posts and comments are all that- measured – because I am guessing that people are sizing me up (like I am them, ironically) and I want to be careful about what I put out there. But that fact alone – that I do that – reveals something about me, too (sort of like the Grammar Nazi you mentioned above).

    I could go on…lol…but great insight. I has me thinking…. (and calculating…and measuring… and hopefully ….judging less….)

    (Wonder if the guy from the profile will stumble upon this and say, ‘Hey! That’s me!!! lol) Maybe he can explain 🙂

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