One of my coworkers told me recently how when we Happiness Engineers report bugs it’s not always clear how bad the bug is. We use the same tone, if there is a tone in text, for all bugs. So a minor user interface glitch will have the same tone as a major bug. There are ways around this, of course: we can – and often do – assign a severity rating. However, the question of tone is an interesting one because it comes up in life all the time. How should we communicate something with a high severity and high impact rating effectively? HELP! I’m FREAKING OUT! doesn’t usually work very well.
Climate scientists have a similar problem. I’m generalising here which I know is always bad but I’m going to do it anyway to say that on the whole scientists tend to be very undramatic and not inclined to outbursts of emotion. They have been reporting the global warming problem in the same monotone for decades but no-one is really listening. The earth is getting hotter and this will affect rainfall patterns and our food supply; the oceans are warming and acidifying which is affecting coral reefs and fisheries; heat waves are becoming longer and more intense; the risk of fires is increasing; land ice is melting and increasing sea levels and so on. Why aren’t we in a panic about this? Why aren’t the scientists reporting it in ALL CAPS!! Would we listen if they did?
Before the Christchurch earthquakes started it was recommended that everyone in Christchurch have an earthquake survival kit. No-one had one except me. Now most people have them but they needed the fear and panic of the disaster to act. Advising people in a calm and collected manner to be prepared did not work.
When the pilots of ill-fated Colombian flight 52 communicated their low fuel situation to air traffic controllers at Kennedy International Airport they said, “I think we need priority”. They were not given priority because they did not use the word “emergency” and the plane ran out of fuel and crashed.