Service of Pick up the Phone Already: When Written Communication Runs Amok

August 21st, 2017

Categories: Communications, Miscommunication, Texting

Here’s an example of miscommunication in the extreme illustrating the potential impact of careless texting or hastily written messages of any kind.

The friend who shared this story received tragic news that blessedly turned out to be poor communications. She is a meticulous writer, speaker, retired PR manager at a major corporation and longtime instructor of Management Communication. She said if she were currently teaching a class she would use this as an example of what happens if you don’t consider what the recipient of your text or email might be thinking. The lesson applies to both personal and business communications.

I have made up the names of the characters in this tale.

  • My friend will be Maude
  • Her friend, the grandmother, Pam
  • Pam’s husband, the grandfather, Fred
  • Pam’s sister, Steph, is also a good friend of Maude’s and is the baby’s great aunt

Maude’s friend Pam traveled to be with her son and daughter-in-law last week for the birth of their second child. Her husband, Fred, stayed at home. The delivery of their first grandchild, now three, was extremely difficult. But their grandson, born on Maude’s birthday, was a healthy 9 lb baby and angelically beautiful. His mother, too, was fine.

The day after the infant was born, Pam’s sister, Steph, sent Pam a text telling her that she’d just bought a few things for the baby.

Pam texted in response: “We lost boy around noon today.”

Shocked, Steph called Maude. I happened to call Maude moments after she’d heard from Steph. Usually unshaken, Maude was stunned.

Pam has many siblings and they frequently invited Fred to have dinner with them while Pam was with the young family in the East.  When she opened the door, she told Fred that she was so sorry and he replied that he “knew this would happen a long time ago,” which was news to Steph.

Fred continued, “I was with him.” Odd, given that the baby was born over 1,000 miles away. “When I saw him this morning I knew he wasn’t going to make it.” Puzzling still.

In her distress and alarm over what she’d interpreted as the sudden death of her grandnephew, Steph forgot that Pam and Fred had a cat named “Boy.” It is he who had died.

An aside: Maude was telling me the story on the phone as she was getting a manicure. The manicurist apologized for eavesdropping and asked if the woman who’d written the text was American because “a native English speaker wouldn’t have written that.” Even this didn’t trigger an aha! moment because the baby didn’t yet have a name.

She wondered whether Pam had read what Steph had written about her purchases before responding with her news. As importantly, did Pam consider what might be on her sister’s mind given the family’s focus on the new addition? Maude advised for important information, don’t rely on hastily written texts and emails. If you don’t have time to reread then wait until you do or pick up the phone. Do you agree?

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6 Responses to “Service of Pick up the Phone Already: When Written Communication Runs Amok”

  1. EAM Said:

    This seems like a recipe for disaster and context is everything. Yes, wait to make a phone call or clarify the comment/question. A few times via text, I’ve written to be clear do you mean this? And sometimes clarification is indeed needed.

  2. ASK Said:

    I’m at a loss to understand why people, especially young people, have such an aversion to the telephone. At work, when a staffer had to contact someone, he or she would initiate contact with an email. Always up against deadlines, after a day or two, I would ask about the response. If there was none, I would suggest a phone call…and was always met with an astonished expression, and “what if they say, no?” My response: Well, we’ll have an answer, won’t we?”

  3. hb Said:

    Fortunately, in your friend’s case, no harm was done. However, I suspect the negative impact of miscommunication on our lives is unfortunately worsening as the rate at which our language changes speeds up.

    I had a brush with this just a week or two ago when a valued service provider showed up at our home at 9:00 at night after just an hour’s notice to rescue me from a disaster. When I greeted him at the door I blurted out spontaneously in gratitude, “You’re our fairy godfather.” Instantaneously, a strange look came over his face, and I realized I had forgotten that he might be gay. But the word “fairy,” in that context, while used when I was young, is no longer. Who knows why the strange expression: He may have thought, “Darn, I forgot to pick up milk,” or even “What did he say?” as my voice isn’t as strong as it once was.

    The good news, just as in your example: no harm seems to have been done.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    If a person is a careless writer he/she had best rely on the phone no matter how last decade that seems. I am sure I irritate folks all the time when I ask for clarification about something that’s unclear to me but clear as ten bells to them! I’m with you: When in doubt, ask. But in the case of this news, I can see why the recipient didn’t return a text for clarification.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    It’s not just about talking on the phone, it’s about speaking. I’ve written before about a colleague who worked with two others in a large room. The boss reprimanded her if she’d ask a quick question. She was told, “Write me an email.”

    I understand that it’s easier to read “no” than to hear “no.” But it’s also easy for the other person not to respond and what a lot of time is wasted emailing such people when, if you’re lucky to catch them on the phone, you’ll hear the bad news lickety split.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Communications have always been complicated and for the lazy, the potential for misunderstanding explodes. Once I sent a press release to a client for a final look only to learn that the company had changed the name of the product without breathing a word to the PR team! Another time, the client changed the date for an event without letting me know. In the first instance we made the changes on fact sheet and release before anything went out. In the second, we had to send out a correction.

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