5 Internet Pitfalls Faced by the Socially Awkward

#2. Online Personality Changes

It's generally accepted that a lot of people are much more interesting online than they are in real life. Many of us might stutter and pee ourselves when we talk to real people, but online we're bold enough to anonymously threaten people we'll never meet, by God! But what's not often addressed is the opposite issue: people who are perfectly articulate in real life but, when online, turn into 13-year-olds who have overdosed on cough syrup.

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Now, I'm not talking about literacy issues or poor spelling or whatever. These are people who can spell and write just fine when they want to. But somewhere along the way they got the idea that when it comes to online communication, it's totally OK to fall back on the text-speak they learned from a USA Today article back in 1998.

I'm pretty sure that entire friendships have ended over the fact that one person has decided not to worry at all about grammar online, or still thinks it's normal to use the word *smile* to indicate a joke. After all, sometimes we don't see our friends in person very often, and all of our interaction will be filtered through the personality they use online. If that personality consists of them replacing all of their vowels with numbers, or endlessly adding little bouncing smileys with angel wings when referring to dead people, it's not out of line to cool things down a bit.

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At which point your friend will ask you why you're being a "h8r."

And of course the opposite of this is the way that you decide to present yourself in text. For example, there's the difficult matter of ...

#1. Whether to Use Smileys in Email

When you're talking to friends, it's generally acceptable to insert smiley faces whenever you want to indicate that you're only joking about starting every morning with a longing for the sweet embrace of death. When it comes to more formal emails, though, the traditional advice is to leave the smileys out, especially if you're communicating in a business setting.

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"I can still keep the ASCII penis in my signature, right?"

The problem with this advice is that it assumes that all emoticons are meaningless flourishes, and that without them the unvarnished truth of human communication will naturally express itself in text form. Unfortunately, it isn't that simple. According to some social scientists, online communication carries an innate "negativity bias," a tendency for people to assume the absolute worst about the person whose words they're reading. To demonstrate this bias, imagine that you're clocking in for another morning at the goat farm where you work. As you sit down in your office and power up the goat-distribution software, your boss sends you this email:

Going to be late to work today. Please hold down the fort until 10, if you can manage it :)

Awesome, you think, as you send off another order of goats. Can do! But now, let's say your boss phrases the message like this:

Going to be late to work today. Please hold down the fort until 10, if you can manage it.

If you're like most people, you'll interpret that second email in a sarcastic, "I don't believe you can handle goat distribution at all" sense that probably makes you want to punch your stupid boss right in his stupid face. There's no tone or facial expression in the message, and no emoticon to compensate for that lack, and this creates a kind of emotional vacuum that most people fill up with an unwavering assumption of assholishness. No wonder we're always yelling at each other.

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"Baby squirrels are cuter than kittens?! I will fucking kill your whole family."

Given that communication without smileys causes the online world to morph into a terrible place filled with insult-hurling douchebags, emoticons should be a no-brainer, right? Except that, apparently, adding in the old "I'm not an asshole" smiley-face addendum might cost you. A study in which participants rated fake employee cover emails with and without smileys found that employees were assigned lower pay recommendations if they used emoticons, and were considered less likely to show "independence" and "leadership."

In other words, as soon as you open that email program, you've got no choice but to put yourself in the category of either "raging douchehole" or "spineless wimp who doesn't like money." So be sure to balance out any emoticons you use by adding a small message to your boss telling him how much you'd enjoy hearing the lamentations of his women.

C. Coville has a Twitter here and a Tumblr here.

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