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You’re probably spending too much time ‘Slack-splaining’

In written digital communications, we have a tendency to overexplain to ensure there isn’t a misunderstanding. But there’s a cost.

You’re probably spending too much time ‘Slack-splaining’
[Photo: Stefan Heinemann/Unsplash]

Jotting off a quick IM or email is a fast way to communicate, but the written word can easily be misinterpreted. Our brains are hardwired to assume the negative, which means the receiver could assume a tone or underlying meaning that’s just not there.

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A survey by the communication platform Loom of more than 3,000 office workers found that 91% have had digital messages misunderstood or misinterpreted at work, and for 20%, the misinterpretation has caused them to get reprimanded, demoted, or even fired.

“Language is inherently complex,” says Senka Hadzimuratovic, head of communications at AI writing platform Grammarly. “That’s even more pronounced in a business setting where you’re constantly managing competing priorities, multiple stakeholders, and deadline pressures. When we account for the increasing complexities of asynchronous and remote work—and as we write more across more contexts—misunderstandings are bound to happen.”

Remote work has only expanded the amount of written communication we have every day. Those quick face-to-face check-in conversations are now being done by email and Slack. Research from Grammarly and The Harris Poll found that employees spend nearly half of their workweek on written communication alone.

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“The shift to a more fragmented, dispersed workplace has exacerbated these challenges. As we work more asynchronously and across more channels and systems, this creates more opportunities for miscommunication,” says Hadzimuratovic. “While tools like collaboration platforms help with the ‘what’ of communication, ‘how’ we interact effectively in this landscape is much more challenging—and critical to address.”

Dr. Betsy Dalton, assistant professor of communications for Middle Tennessee State University, says email, text, and Slack platforms are “lean” communication channels. “[They are] low on the types of nonverbal cues we use during in-person communication to convey meaning,” she says. “These cues include gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, pitch, posture, eye contact, even timing.”

In contrast, face-to-face conversations or video calls allow for more layers of meaning to be conveyed between and among parties. “Aspects of a message such as emotion, tone, sense of urgency, or sarcasm can be more easily conveyed in these communication-rich channels,” says Dalton.

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Are Emojis the Right Fix?

Using lean channels removes context, and a simple question that was intended to mean one thing could be interpreted in a completely different way. To adjust, 47% of respondents said they overthink emails and messages they send. To ward off a misunderstanding, they’re adding extra words, punctuation, and emojis to add context and clarify tone.

“The possibility for misinterpretation is always there especially when someone can’t see your facial expressions and the emotion attached to the statement,” says Loom CEO Joe Thomas, who uses the term “Slack-splaining” to describe the practice of overexplaining through digital written communications to ensure there isn’t a misunderstanding. “There is an impulse to add a smiley emoji, an exclamation point, or other positive visual stimuli to convey tone. This happens even more often at work when someone feels their livelihood is on the line.”

Often, people Slack-splain out of fear instead of actual need. In the Loom survey, more than half of respondents say they’re constantly worried that they are going to type or say the wrong thing, and many find themselves thinking and rethinking what the intent of the sender was. Ninety-three percent felt the need to write multiple sentences to fully explain something, 82% have felt the need to use extra punctuation like multiple exclamation marks, and 77% have felt the need to use emojis.

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“This is a critical indicator of work-life imbalance and leads to a higher possibility of workers getting burned out,” says Thomas. “We found that employees are stressing too much over their communication, and any added stress will take away from not just the work an employee can do, but an employee having a positive work experience overall.”

Rereading or overthinking email and instant messages is taking time and impacting productivity. The same is true of having to resolve confusion after a misunderstanding or miscommunication over a digital platform. In the Grammarly poll, 76% of business leaders agree that they and their teams spend too much time and energy resolving miscommunications.

“Slack-splaining is indicative of larger communication challenges exacerbated by hybrid work and employees’ desire to be understood as intended,” says Hadzimuratovic. “Businesses can better support and empower employees by investing in tools that help them feel more confident in their communication and give them insights into how others might interpret their writing.”

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Choosing the Right Communication Tool

Thomas suggests matching the message with the right platform. If you’re feeling a strong need to add emojis or extra punctuation, determine if a face-to-face method, such as live or recorded video that can preempt confusion.

“Finding the communication tools that fit your personal style as well as the needs of your team can help to avoid so many issues and make the workplace a more productive and enjoyable setting overall,” he says.

But you don’t have to ditch emojis, altogether, says Dalton, who says they do add context in written communication. “I believe they absolutely have a place in today’s digital workspaces,” she says. “Without the freedom to utilize these communicative shortcuts to convey meaning, employees may find themselves producing overly wordy emails and other messages to ensure that their meaning is understood at every level. But context matters. An overreliance on emojis in the place of actual content can come off as unprofessional, disingenuous, or even juvenile. It takes time and careful observation of cultural norms within teams and organizations to find that sweet spot where they’re truly useful.”

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