Sunday, August 29, 2010

Modus Communicatus

The modern world provides us with a great variety of technologies which allow us to communicate more efficiently than ever. In some situations, this means that we can be much more effective. In others, it simply means that we can create more misunderstandings per hour than we ever could have without the assistance of technology. The root of the problem is that, when communication becomes easier, we are inclined to do it with less thought. Even worse, too many people, caught up in the ease of texting and other modern modes, fail to realize just how ineffective some of these methods can be, especially for more emotional topics.

Let's consider the limitations of some communication modes. In this article, we will consider 5 common modes: speaking in person, phone, instant messaging, texting, and email.

As we can see, in person communication is far and away the best method for communicating clearly. This makes sense, as it is how we have been communicating as humans for hundreds of thousands of years. We have our words, intonations, and body language to work from. In person, we might say something and immediately realize that what we said was inadvertently hurtful from the  body language of the person we are speaking to. In instant messenger, we might say something hurtful and not realize it, blithely digging ourselves in deeper and deeper.

The Benefits of Technology
Technology can be a great boon for busy people wishing to stay in touch. Text based communication allows low energy contact, which can create a greater sense of closeness in a relationship, even though little actual information is transmitted. Consider Emily's story:

Emily says: My boyfriend and I are both very busy people, and we do not get as much time as we would like to spend together. We both work jobs that are on the computer, so we keep AIM up all day and we chat while we work. It is nice, like sitting in the same room and working on different things. We don't talk about anything serious, but it keeps that closeness.

Instant messaging is a great tool for casual communication, sharing fun stories from work, expressing frustrations, etc. Texting is, likewise, a great tool for casually staying in touch, if you are one of those who does not mind trying to type on a tiny tiny keyboard.

For almost a century, we have been using the phone to make communication easier. Phone conversations do not work as background activities like IMing does, but they do eliminate the need to travel to be in the same place as the person one wishes to talk to. With being able to hear the voice of the one we are talking to, it can be like being right there, but there is still the lack of body language that can inhibit communication. However, when people are making a point of being clear, this issue can be overcome.

Where Technology Fails
Unfortunately, the same thing that makes IM and texting so great limits its utility. All that there is of the communication is what is on the screen, staring at you in black and white, or chartreuse and mauve, depending on your settings. No body language, no voice inflection. One does not even have the benefit of knowing how quickly or slowly the message was sent due to the delays at the server.

This means that these are fine modes for talking about the weather or work or whatever, but they are terrible formats for talking about serious things.

Candy says: I was seeing this guy and things were going pretty well. Then, there was a little issue. I told him it upset me, and he got upset and it got all kinds of out of hand. We were used to talking on IM all the time, so that's how we talked about this, but no matter what I said, he just got more and more upset until we ended up breaking up. I'm not even sure what it was all about to begin with.

What happened in Candy's situation is that they fell into the trap of being used to talking online about light and fluffy things. Suddenly they had something serious to talk about, and it did not occur to either of them to pick up the telephone.

The problem is that we tend to associate emotions with words. If we can hear the voice of the person that we are talking to, we will ascribe the emotions that we hear to the words. On the other hand, if we cannot hear them and only have their written words to work from, we will ascribe the emotions in our own head to the words. Words that are meant to be conciliatory can be read as sarcastic. Gentle apology can be misread as condescension.

This can happen with email, Facebook comments, and other epistolary communications, but it is even more pronounced with instant messaging. In an email, you might take a moment to reread the letter before replying. Instant messaging tends to be more instant. One often reads quickly and replies quickly. Looking back on a chat log, one will often find that they were the one to accidentally inflame the situation by misreading a statement by the other person.

The acronym above stands for "Pick Up The Phone". Email, instant messenger, and text are great for what they are good for, but always remember their limitations. When things start getting heated, pick up the phone, or, better yet, talk to them face to face. It doesn't matter if you are talking to a friend, a coworker, a romantic partner, or a business associate. Why risk the relationship over some stupid miscommunication, when you could clear things up easily by picking up the phone.

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