Healthy Communication: No Finger Pointing, Please

By Cherise Tasker

Communication – a challenge under the best conditions, has adopted a whole new meaning now that we email, post, text, tweet and pin. Face-to-face communication encompasses words, gestures and facial expressions. As the words flow, we have pitch, volume, intonation and emphasis with which to interpret the speaker’s meaning. Once the words are separated from the physical person, we start to rely on what we know about the person delivering the message. If we are acquainted with the sender, we tend to automatically interpret the meaning behind the words based on our knowledge of the person. Without an understanding of the writer, we have only the words to go on as we read the message. Punctuation, formatting fonts and using emoticons add another layer, but still, a human element is missing from electronic communication. Because the words on the page, screen and phone are between humans, however, this communication is interpersonal in spite of its wireless transmission. No matter that the delivery is automated, the words can, and often will, be taken personally.

How can we choose our words so that the meaning is clear and without an unintended layer of emotion? In person, communication includes emotion, so although our intention may be misinterpreted, we have the opportunity to blunt a poor choice of words with a smile, a shrug, a grimaced apology. In an email, the words are sent in all their nakedness, trusting the recipient to accurately interpret the sender’s meaning. If your words finger point, the recipient stands accused, and she won’t appreciate it one bit. If your words judge, the reader sits condemned.

Finger-pointing, in words and gestures, casts blame and aspersions. In Disney parks and properties such as Disney World, staff members are not allowed to point even when giving directions. Disney employees are trained to use two fingers or a full hand sweep to direct visitors. If finger-pointing is to be avoided even when someone is asking where to go, it seems safe to assume that finger-pointing should be avoided in messaging intended to be instructional, motivational, grateful or supervisory. Providing guidance, rather than a forceful order, inspires motivation, cooperation and camaraderie.

jason-e1375922889122_webIn creating electronic communication to inspire and direct, avoid the use of the term “you” in conjunction with a command or a negative remark. “You” can convey a negative judgment or a division between the writer and the reader. The use of “you” may create a universal statement that may sound critical and create a feeling of anger rather than team spirit. Taking a statement such as “you must be more attentive to detail” and rephrasing it as “increased attention to detail is important in this task” will make a big difference in creating a cooperative environment.

Effective electronic communication includes clear, succinct language without judgmental overtones. The tone of the language makes all the difference in creating a supportive response. The Writing Center at University of North Carolina has a helpful online student tip sheet with advice for remote and virtual correspondence. Author’s are advised to consider and step back from any negative emotions that could contribute to accusatory word selection. Action requests should include recommendations and positive ideas rather than criticism alone. When a complaint is documented, including ideas for solutions unites the writer and reader in a common mission. Concise, professional content creates goal-oriented communication that is less likely to be misinterpreted. The greeting and closing language also matter, as they would in any social situation. A good question to ask is whether the language in the electronic message would be acceptable in a face-to-face message. Email should not be used to say something that the writer would not, or could not, say in person. Respect and support are just as important in cyberspace as in interpersonal space.

Cherise Tasker is an Instructor & Research Specialist at the Central Branch and has a background in health information. Most evenings, Cherise can be found reading a book, attending a book club meeting, or coordinating a book group.



  1. Love the photos, but I doubt that Laci has a mean finger-pointing bone in her body (:

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