Exploring the role of intention in the interpretation of messages

In a recent podcast, executive coaches Dave Asprey and Anese Cavanaugh discuss the importance of intention when it comes to interpersonal impact, and their conversation brings up some interesting questions for the realm of the pragmatics of written language.

Anese teaches that our intention forms the base of how our reality unfolds. For example, if you are stressed or angry, the people you interact with will perceive this—perhaps only subconsciously—even if your words and gestures are ostensibly pleasant. In other words, your intention (in this case your bad mood) permeates your outward performance. Conversely, if you cultivate gratefulness, positivity and calmness, you will find that people “inexplicably” are drawn to you. I’m not sure if these things have been studied empirically (I haven’t dug into it), but they certainly pop up so often anecdotally that they’re difficult to ignore.

These findings are curious, and if we consider them linguistically, they fall within the purview of pragmatics. There is something deep within our communication that conveys meaning. What is that “something”: The subtlest facial expression? A nuance in our voice? A shade of gesture? Something electromagnetic?

I am interested in the extent to which these findings hold true in cyber communication. In video and audio chat, for example, and also in writing. We know that the general principles of pragmatics come to play in these areas—but what about all this? They are questions that could be explored empirically:

  • Might an email message written by a flustered sender be interpreted with corresponding aloofness? That is, could a receiver predict the emotional state of the sender?
  • If so, what criteria would affect this: Sentence structure? Word choice? Punctuation? Could we, say, endeavor to calculate the net sentiment that a double space or an ellipsis accords, given a certain context?
  • Could there possibly be an effect with regard to the interpretation of identical messages written by happy compared to unhappy senders? Such a finding would be truly remarkable.
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