Watch Your Tone When Talking To Teens

The following was previously published in an earlier edition of Marketing Insider.

Experts tell us that 70% to 93% of communication is nonverbal, creating yet another challenge for social media posts. Today, more brands and individuals than ever before express themselves from behind keyboards, via tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram captions and SMS. Is it really surprising that so many of these statements are misinterpreted, fomenting greater division and outrage?

In addition, audiences are increasingly fragmented, sharing fewer common cultural references. A message that might be hilarious to a middle-aged, neurotypical white man in Milwaukee might totally miss the mark with a neurodiverse, Black, non-binary teen in France.

Fortunately, a new language is emerging online to address these issues. In December, the New York Times published an extensive look at tone indicators. According to the Times, “Tone indicators are most popular within some Twitter and Tumblr communities of young people with overlapping interests in identity representation, anime and K-pop fandom, twee aesthetics, and sensitivity toward mental health and gender issues.”



Late last year among these circles, tone indicators developed in the form of a forward slash (/) followed by an abbreviation. If somebody posts “I hate you!,” they might mark that with a tone indicator of “/j” for “joking,” “/s” for “sarcastic,” “/t” for “teasing,” “/lh” for “lighthearted,” or “/nm” for “not mad.” If they follow with “/srs,” uh-oh, you’re in trouble: they’re “serious.”

If somebody posts “You look great today!,” they could follow it with “/p” to show their intent is “platonic,” “/r” for “romantic,” “/sx” or “/x” for “sexual intent,” or “/nsx” or “nx” for the opposite. If they ask, “How do you mend a broken heart?,” they can clarify with “/rh” or “/rt” for “rhetorical question,” or “/gen” for “genuine question.” Or if they post “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” they can helpfully add an “/l” or “/ly” to show they’re merely quoting Johnny Cash lyrics, not confessing to an actual crime.

The Times points out that tone indicators are nothing new. As far back as 1575, writers, printers and philosophers were suggesting tone indicators such as a “percontation point” (a reversed question mark indicating a rhetorical question) or an inverted exclamation point to convey irony.

Since 1982, computer users have employed emoticons like “:-)” or “:-(” to communicate sentiment. These sideways-facing expressions morphed into the emoji that we employ today when texting on our smartphones. In 2001, a blogger proposed a tilde (~) to convey sarcasm, the predominant form of humor of that era. In 2015, the “Face with Tears of Joy” (or laughing/crying emoji) became the year’s most-tweeted, and the Shrug also became widespread, with the “bemused resignation” of ¯\_()_/¯.

How can brands effectively use tone indicators when communicating online?

*Don’t overuse them. Not every joke needs to be set off with a “/j,” nor every question with a “/gen.” Save them for when there could reasonably be conflicting interpretations. Overuse can be seen as patronizing, particularly to the neurodiverse community.

*Consider rewording. If a joke needs a tone indicator, or a compliment seriously needs to be clarified with “/p” or “/nsx,” consider using language that’s less ambiguous or potentially offensive; not every reader will make it to the tone indicator before reacting badly.

*Ask a diverse team to review all copy. Even the best copywriters are sometimes unaware of their own blind spots. Ensure that a team of people diverse by age, gender, race, sexual identity and geography, as well as all along the neurological spectrum, reviews all copy before posting it, to find, flag and suggest changes on ambiguous or problematic copy.

With these best practices, brands can “/li,” “/srs,” “/g” speak to today’s consumers in a language they’ll understand.
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