This is a story about subtext and listening in social media.
I returned a couple of nights ago from the PRSA 2011 International Conference in Orlando, Fla. It was lovely; I got to catch up with so many of my friends whom I don’t get to see except at this conference, make several new ones, and also meet Bill Dorman and Adam Toporek for the first time (we recognized each other immediately across a crowded room, how cool is that?).
I wasn’t staying at the conference hotel but at the hotel where the PRSSA conference was taking place (because of my surgery, I didn’t know until fairly late whether I’d even be able to make it to the conference and by the time I did, no rooms at the main hotel were available).
So instead of going down for breakfast as I’d normally do, my M.O. was to eat it in my room while I chatted for a while on Twitter, etc., and then would make my way over (thank you, PRSA, for organizing the shuttle buses, they were very helpful).
On Sunday, I did just this and realized that I had run out of hot water for my tea (I’m not a coffee drinker). So I called down and asked for another pot of hot water.
Room service, “Why, certainly, Ms. Burke, that’ll be $3.20.”
Me: “I’m sorry, did you just say it would cost me $3.20 for a pot of hot water?”
RS: “Yes, Ms. Burke.”
Me (after a few seconds of silence): “Are you saying a pot of hot water will be $3.20?”
RS: “Yes, ma’am.”
Me (after a few more seconds of silence, because I was really flummoxed and also didn’t feel like being a drama queen that early in the morning): “A pot of hot water will cost me <beat> three dollars <beat> and twenty cents.”
RS (now she paused for a few seconds): “Ms. Burke, let me put you on hold for just a few seconds while I verify that charge.”
I wait, just starting to realize there’s probably a coffee machine in the room where I could boil my own hot water… I know, I was slow on the uptake, but it was early!
RS comes back on the line: “Ms. Burke, I can waive that charge for you.”
A few minutes later, I had my pot of hot water. Free.
I told this story quite a few times through the conference. First, because it’s funny, and second, because I was proud of myself for getting what I wanted without throwing a tantrum. I mean, I know it was only $3.20, but it was the principle of the thing.
If you are familiar with the performing arts, you’ll know what “subtext” is. When I was in theater school, they were big on subtext (remember, I used to be an actress). It’s what you’re not saying… but the audience gets it anyway.
But you don’t have to have a background in performance to understand subtext; it is implicit in the way we react and respond to people and situations.
In this situation, my subtext was, “Are you kidding me? Do you really think I’m going to pay $3.20 for a pot of hot water?!”
And the hotel employee got that. Granted, it took her a few tries, but she realized what I was saying… even when I wasn’t saying it.
Subtext in social media can be tough.
After all, most of the time we’re on opposite ends of an Internet connection. We can’t even hear each other’s voices. No wonder we (myself included) use so many emoticons when “talking” to each other.
We want to make sure that the person on the other end of the line understands that if our words seem snarky, they’re actually a joke ;), or if they just made a funny, we get it ROFLMAO!!!!!
But there is usually so much more behind what we’re saying.
And when we start listening for the subtext – that’s when we are really listening.
But that’s just what I think. What do you think? Do you think it’s important for businesses to listen to not just what’s being said, but what’s not being said? Do share, because I’d love to do a follow-up post with your input.
And thank you for listening.
[…] as in real, offline, life, listening is the segue to meaningful conversations online. If you don’t have the pulse of your audience, […]
@hackmanj Thanks, Joe!
@shonali You do bring a smile to my face!
@chillygal I’m glad. :)
This must be why emoticons were born! See http://t.co/rDFl4kBd via @ericamallison @shonali ;D.
@dear_allie LOL. Thank you, my dear!
@mattlacasse @bdorman264 @kmueller62 Thank you!
Ha! I love it! Sadly I think you need to be more explicit and SPELL IT OUT when it comes to business. I guess that’s what I’ve learned working across cultures!
Glad you had a great time in FL! LOVED the pics!
@Ameena Falchetto Yea, I guess spelling it out is always safer. Makes me yearn for the days when one didn’t have to do that, though! Isn’t it interesting how people in different cultures communicate? And thank you, Ameena – FL was terrific as you saw!
@shonali Great post, Shonali. I do enjoy banter. No subtext there.
@chillygal That much I know. And thank you! How’s the little man doing?
@shonali He’s great, thx. We’re working on counting by playing with airplanes right now. Love my time with him.
Do you think the helped with the subtext? :-)
@Collectual Heh! I think I got carried away with the whole theatrical allusions. :p Also I thought it would be different from the usual … I remember the first time I read a script that had <beat> in it, I went, “WTH is that?!”
Yet another great post, Shonali. I always learn so much from you. I was in awe of your PRSA 2011 “subtexts” for another reason, however. I loved the way you asked questions on Twitter about what to wear and what hashtag to use for your conference presentation. Not only did it give the people who you give so much to the chance to give back and offer our suggestions, it subtlety promoted your talk (without showboating) and helped you outshine some of the other gurus presenting. Of course, an awesome talk before a standing-room-only crowd carried you the rest of the way. Again, great post and message. Thanks!
@CyberlandGal You are so kind, Monica, thank you!
You know, I didn’t consciously think of promoting my session via the “what should I wear” tweets, etc., but of course, in retrospect, that’s what was happening. I really enjoyed the interaction with people, though, and am always reminded of how much smarter the collective is than any one person. Even if some people (cough, chillygal , cough) mocked me for doing so… :p
From my perspective, planned subtext or not, your approach was both personable and effective at giving everybody a heads up about your presentation. My timeline was FULL of tweets about you and how great you did, including some mentions from top bloggers/PR people. By contrast, other top bloggers/PR people were tweeting about being at the conference but forgot to mention (at least that morning) they were presenting.
Also of note, I’ve seen top bloggers/PR people make their presentations available on Twitter before they speak. That seems like a fairly common way to let people know when you are presenting. But that approach, at least for me, increases the odds I won’t monitor or retweet (or review afterward and retweet) the presentation tweet stream, decreasing overall buzz.
P.S. I didn’t see the mocking commentary from @chillygal, just some nice things.
@CyberlandGal That’s a really good point about the flip side of sharing your presentations beforehand. I do think it’s great to share the presentations (assuming the conference presenters don’t have a problem with that, and so far I haven’t run into any), but oftentimes they are hard to understand if you’re looking at them only online, because you miss out on what the presenter is saying to explain those slides (e.g. I often use large images with few or no bullet points because I prefer to talk through the content). And thank you for the kind words, Monica!
And as far as chillygal and I go, she and I were bantering, and I know she is good-humored (and smart) enough to read MY subtext when I wrote that…!
Great story and I’m so glad you didn’t pay for that water. All I can think is “Wow, what nerve!”
As you know, I’m fairly new to social media. I always saw Twitter as silly because I only knew of it the way celebrities use it (all about them–like we care). When I view social media as a place to listen and then converse, it makes a lot more sense.
@withElan You know, if it hadn’t been that early in the morning, I may have been snarkier in my response. So I suppose it was a good thing that it happened so early!
I love SM as a way to listen to what’s going on. The times I go quiet, I’m doing a lot (more) listening, and it’s amazing what I hear/pick up on. I suspect you do too! Thanks so much for stopping by, I really appreciate it.
@shakirahdawud @deliberateink @pasmithjr Thank you for sharing!
@shonali You were an actress?!
@shakirahdawud I was indeed. I’ve been learning that many of us PR/SM types were. What does that say about us…?!
@shonali Really?? I didn’t realize… it says something, but I’m not sure what.
@shakirahdawud Hmm… maybe that’s a blog post?
@shonali Definitely–I’d love to know what you make of it.
This made me laugh as I read it. I had seen your tweet, but the full story is awesome.
Now, to your point on subtext; such a great analogy (I agree @EricaAllison !) Sometimes, if I am questioning the subtext behind a tweet, or if I respond and had misunderstood, I’ll say something to the effect of, “Sorry, sometimes I miss the nuance in the tweet.” I mean honestly, how can we expect to communicate all that in one tweet?
Which is why it is sooooo important to seek clarification before switching into Drama Queen (DQ) mode. and with that, I’ll end it with a :) so you can understand MY subtext.
@Lisa Gerber Wink wink nudge nudge, eh? :p I’m glad I made you laugh, I actually made myself laugh with this one too!
@shonali the “real” listening in #socialmedia: http://t.co/FFS9Fc18 (also a funny story!) – what do you think?
Thanks Shonali. I am with you on that hot water. Hope I would have been as kind and patient as you were. Ha ! Sometimes, it takes a minute or two, for people to get it. Absolutely, we need to listen more. With our ears, our eyes, our hearts and to the subtext that is most always present. You have to know your audience or the person you are interacting with. Think about it, before we respond. Be kind and gentle, until you know if they appreciate your sarcasm (Me) Might need to exchange a few more DM’s, emails or maybe even a phone call to get the feel of the person.
Great story and message. Thanks again. So glad you are back.
@Al Smith I think everyone I’ve told that story to got a laugh out of it. Some even came up with follow-up jokes, like jaybaer who suggested it was the “heating fee,” and another friend who, the next day, suggested it was now $3.50 because of inflation. Ha!
It does take a while to get to know someone and whether or not they will appreciate your humor, etc. Very good point(s), Al. And thank you for the kind words!
@quozza Thanks so much, if you have the time to leave a comment I’d love it for the follow-up post.
@shonali Will do. Was a nice tale to tell. Not always easy to tell “written” subtext – but I guess that’s when we need our social 6thsense?
@ericamallison Thank you for sharing and for being the first commenter!
Awesome story and awesome analogy! Subtext in social media and in email communication (anything that isn’t face to face, or voice to voice) is so critical and I think so often overlooked or missed entirely. I try to go back a few exchanges, to get some background and understanding if I think subtext is there, but I might be missing it. If I think it’s there and I’m still not getting it, I tread lightly or wait to respond. Once you send or hit enter on that status update or tweet, it’s gone forever. Slow your roll, people. Look for the hidden cyber body language. :)
By the way, I am proud of you for getting that pot of water for free! Way to go!
@EricaAllison Thank you! I think this is a recurring theme for so many of us, particularly because communications move so quickly these days. Are we really “getting” what people are saying (or what they mean) or are we just skimming? And I’ve been thinking about subtext and social for a while, and this experience gave me the perfect (I think) story to frame it in.
Good to see you, Erica, and thanks again!