Back in 2009 an office worker in New Zealand was sacked for sending emails in block capitals, in a case that showed that the Internet too has its own culture and norms, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t respect this. Vicki Walker was forced out of her job as an accountant at a healthcare company after colleagues complained that her emails were too “shouty” and confrontational. Apparently she had sent emails with sentences which were entirely in capitals, sometimes bold, sometimes red or blue. Her defence was that she merely wanted to make sure that people understood what she was saying. Her employers, however, told a tribunal that she spread disharmony among her co-workers. Here is just one example from her emails that was presented to the tribunal: “TO ENSURE YOUR STAFF CLAIM IS PROCESSED AND PAID, PLEASE DO FOLLOW THE BELOW CHECK LIST.”
Questionable grammar aside, this is nothing if not an eyesore, the visual equivalent of slapping someone about the head with a pair of dirty old underpants. Even though we may have gotten used to this kind of behaviour thanks to antisocial media and the dark days of Trump and his feverish rantings, we shouldn’t have to put up with it. The employment tribunal in New Zealand, however, found that although she had caused friction in her office and created something of a bad atmosphere, she had nevertheless been unfairly dismissed, not least because the company did not have a written style guide for writing emails. It’s not clear from the reports whether she was issued with a formal warning before being dismissed, but I have to say she should most definitely have been cautioned and sent on a sensitivity or communication course.
There was a time when I used to look at discussions on newsgroups and wonder why people would get so wound up by messages consisting almost entirely of capital letters. Nowadays I can see the point. It’s really, really, really annoying. Usually the best place to see the Caps Lock key abused so blatantly is on discussion forums when people are discussing highly emotive subjects. But I think some people either forget or do not realise that writing in capitals really is the online equivalent of standing on a table and screaming your head off. Some people just don’t care. It is a symptom, though, of a general inability on the part of a huge proportion of the population to communicate electronically. I’ve lost count of the number of emails I have received, from customers, colleagues and students which at best read like an SMS message and at worst like something from the Da Vinci Code. Some people seem to think that the ease and speed of electronic communication is carte blanche for informality and general laziness.
With written electronic communication, because there are no visual, non-verbal cues to aid communication (remember that the vast majority of normal communication relies on these cues) even the slightest deviation in expectations or conventions can spontaneously take on hugely complex and frequently inaccurate meanings. I’m still taken aback at emails that start “Dear Jody Byrne” – I don’t really know why I do but it makes me feel objectified and spoken down to, even though it’s probably because people don’t know whether I’m a “Mr.” or a “Ms.” on account of my first name. But everything you write, every comma, exclamation mark (in Germany they tend to come in threes and have been known to spark panicked stampedes of crazed urgency) and word in an email can be interpreted in any number of ways and without the visual cues to put it into context and help eliminate the incorrect interpretations, they become amplified and sometimes blown out of all proportion.
But writing in capitals, apart from being downright rude, irritating and the sign of a poor writer, can actually have the opposite effect to what the culprit is aiming for. You see, when we read, we don’t read each individual letter in a word, we recognise the word by its overall shape (unless of course it’s a word we don’t already know). Now the meaning of each word is stored along with a graphical representation or shape in our long-term memory. The way our brains work is that if information has a graphical association, we can retrieve it much more quickly than if it has no such association. In writing words in capitals you are destroying this graphical image which helps us recognise the word and retrieve its meaning. This means we have to analyse each word, letter by letter. The net result is that instead of instantly recognising a sequence of words, you’ve presented readers with something that’s harder and more time-consuming to read and increased the chance of readers not understanding it properly. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. Writing in capital letters is reminiscent of that clichéd character you used to see in English sitcoms where, when confronted with someone who didn’t speak English, the character would usually speak much, much louder and much more slowly as if the person’s inability to understand was due to them being both deaf and stupid.
There are so many things that people find irritating about electronic communication that it makes you wonder whether the time has come to do something about it. I think a good starting point would be to recall all computer keyboards and surgically remove the Caps Lock key. There is a way of disabling it using your computer’s registry but I think the symbolism of physically removing the keys and melting them down is pretty important. (I also think we should stop email programs having the ability to compose HTML emails too because this only encourages people to add colour to their uppercase missives and apart from being pointless, they take up bandwidth unnecessarily). If, after removing the Caps Lock keys, people persist in assaulting us with badly spelled (spellcheckers tend to ignore uppercase words) uppercase nonsense, the offenders should be glued to a giant Caps Lock key and driven through the streets on the back of a donkey and cart. Problem solved!