Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Say what? (Musings on modern-day communication)

When I was growing up, there were only 3 modes of communication in common use: face to face, synchronous (phone), and asynchronous (snail mail). Email started to pick up around the time I started university, and over the next decade mostly replaced snail mail. Now, there’s a huge variety of ways to communicate, and each of us has our own private hierarchy or system for them. I make regular use of a rather startling array, and infrequent use of quite a few more. The current regulars are:

Phone (yes, I still call people. Really.)
Skype (voice/video/text)

[asynchronous, private]
Email (multiple addresses for personal and professional uses)
Twitter DM

[asynchronous, public]
This Here Thing

[mixed synchronous/asynchronous, public/private]

What’s interesting, and a bit perplexing, is that synchronous and asynchronous seem to be converging, or at least expectations around them are. And I have to wonder: what is the point of having all these different modes when most of them amount to the same thing?

Because I haven’t stopped to think about this sooner, I’ve developed some bad communication habits. If you send me an email during my waking hours and you don’t get a reply within 2 hours, you might not get one for months, if ever. The way I deal with the volume of communication that flows through my Inbox is through a sort of permanent state of multitasking – I deal with it, or at least respond, immediately. That way I don’t feel like I’m falling behind, even though my ‘to-do’ list is probably growing rather than shrinking.

That may sound like a good thing, but it’s made me noisy. Not as in loud (I’ve always been loud), but as in my signal-to-noise ratio is dwindling. A side effect of my quick-turnaround habit is that my emails tend to be very brief and single-point, which isn’t necessarily the most effective. I used to pride myself on well-written, meaningful communication, and now I sometimes catch myself firing off, within a matter of hours, messages over Skype, email and Twitter to the same person – because I’ve either not thought through what I needed to say in the first message, or because during those hours, three or four things that relate to them have either come into my Inbox or occurred to me. These things usually aren’t on-fire urgent – why didn’t I save them up and send them all at once, at the end of the day or first thing in the morning? Why don’t I start doing that today? The truth: because it’s habit now, and I also worry that people have become so conditioned to single-purpose communication that they’ll only absorb the first thing I say.

Looking back, this pattern started in my professional life and over time bled into the personal domain. And now when I catch myself, I’m a little ashamed that I’m not making an effort to communicate more meaningfully, and also for having subjected the other party to what amounts to noise.

Where this whole pattern really falls down is with personal messaging, particularly email from close friends. True, not many send long-form email anymore, but some do and I love it. Of course, I don’t want to send an off-the-cuff multitasked reply – I want to think it through, craft a message that conveys the love I feel for them, tell them things that will be meaningful and make them smile. So I flag these for later. And then I, more frequently than I like to admit, forget about them entirely. This is truly shameful.

And then there’s new people. Whenever I get to know someone new, we trade bits of our contact information over the first few weeks or months of our acquaintance. Once that’s underway, we begin an iterative experimentation: working out which channels get the quickest response, which are treated as urgent and which are checked less frequently, who answers their phone and who communicates solely via text, etc. I give a little, hopefully they give a little, and eventually we settle into a set of channels and a rhythm that suits both parties. It’s mutual, tacit expectation management, and it usually works pretty well – except for when it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, sometimes bad things happen.

This is at least in part because when you’re dealing with 160 characters or less, subtext is far more difficult to interpret – and as previously discussed, it’s increasingly rare for people to write much more than that. Combine the lack of context inherent in asynchronous communication with the added challenge of not knowing someone very well, and then add extreme brevity… it’s a recipe for grave misunderstanding if not disaster. In the absence of other cues, response time is taken as subtext, or tongue-in-cheek is read as angry, or someone gets upset because I’ve wandered off in what they thought was the middle of a conversation.

So what’s the answer? Clearly communicated expectations, explicitly drawn timescales, some kind of spoken (or, god help us, written) contract between new friends? Maybe. But I’m not entirely convinced that any of us is able to fully articulate how communications affect us emotionally, much less draw up rules of engagement. I also think a lot can be accomplished with some simple, old-fashioned empathy. It’s part of human nature to assume that those around us – especially those with whom we get on well – are intellectually or emotionally similar and thus will respond the way we expect them to. Where communication is concerned, this seems to be far from true, and we haven’t yet caught up with ourselves on the etiquette of the tools we use and how we use them. Maybe we all need to pay a bit closer attention to those with whom we communicate: spot what they need, recognise what we need, and find ways to reconcile the two.