Coping with Indirect Communication

“Human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding. And we clean them up with technology. Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body – not too little, not too much, just right.”
Sherry Turkle, author, Alone Together.
I’ve been on a tech (+vacation) break for the past two weeks – no social media, blog’s been on hiatus and my email activity has been limited. Frankly, it’s been a pleasure – a welcome distancing from being tethered to a screen.  In the process I’ve been thinking a lot about technology – and humanness.
Because I’m self-employed, I can control my email inbox flow without any repercussions. I don’t have to use out- of -the -office reminders or respond to hundreds of “urgent” messages.   One of the perks of the “feast or famine” lifestyle of a freelancer is having the freedom to control the flow of information in your life.
So it’s easier for me to take an e-mail sabbatical than most of my clients who average hundreds of emails a day.  Actually, I can’t imagine it.  And I appreciate how challenging it is for so many people, especially those working in organizations, to keep up with correspondence under constant pressure.
My inbox falls into the following categories:

  • Personal
  • Business & related communication
  • Things I want to read, buy, keep informed about, etc.
  • Things I may have been interested in at one point and am iffy about deleting or unsubscribing

It’s clearly the last two categories that weigh down my inbox and I need to exercise a lot more control over the amount of information I receive.   With the first two categories, I try to be as prompt and thorough in my responses as I can be – even when I am very busy. Busy is a relative term, I know.
That’s why I am too often disappointed by the responses I get (or don’t) when I communicate via email.
 Here are some of my email guidelines: 

  • If I don’t have time to respond in detail for a few days – I will let you know in a brief message.
  • I respond to all non-spam and personal marketing emails, even if I don’t know you. In his article, What People Really Think When You Don’t Respond to Emails, Adam Boettiger writes, “The new trend in email management is to simply delete what you don’t wish to reply to, thus effectively ending any conversation before it begins.”
  • If I’ve taken more than a few days to respond – I apologize.
  • If you ask me a question – or even three – I will address each one as best I can or at least let you know I got your question/s.  It’s becoming common in personal and especially business communication to overlook or ignore certain questions. Personally, I find this very frustrating. I know there’s advice out there about how to ask questions, ask the doable, easy ones first, etc, but the bottom line is that if someone asked you a question in person, you’d have to either respond or deflect.
  • I greet you – hi – how are you? I usually use your name in my greeting. I find that people like to have other people use their name. I may even ask you a question or two about something I know is going on for you – how was your vacation? How did the move to your new office go? I like you to know that I’m not just about the business at hand but am thinking about you as a person with interests other than what’s in the message of the moment. I know this isn’t standard business protocol anymore, but humanizing interactions is very important to me and busy is not a sufficient excuse for me – most of the time.
  • I add a closing and sign my name.  Thanks, best, regards, have a good day and sometimes even the decidedly old-fashioned – sincerely.
  • I thank you for your time, for your interest, for your help.  I know that you (like almost everyone else in the world it seems) are busy and I want you to feel appreciated.
  • If I can’t help you, I try to offer some other options that may.
  • But most important, if I can talk to you on the phone, or preferably in-person, I will.

Is it me? Am I too old-school?  Am I too polite for the chilly, results-oriented communication of today? 
Welcome to the brave new world of indirect communication!
Let’s face it – our reliance on technology as a means of communication is having a negative impact on our interpersonal communication.  Except for the few, it takes skill to communicate with others effectively, especially in business.  For the cost of “efficiency” we’ve sacrificed the connection of in-person communication.
A survey found that nearly 70% of respondents preferred to deal with others – indirectly – over email, text or phone – even if they were based in the same building.  Just under a third said they preferred having direct conversations to solve problems, citing sped of response and the ability to discuss a range of issues quickly as the main reason behind the decision.
More than half said they feel less confident when dealing with people in person having become more reliant on phone and Skype as their primary communication methods.
As a person whose primary work is about improving the way people communicate, these trends are distressing.  Without question the declining ability for people to effectively communicate face-to-face has serious implications for every family, community and business.  While there is general agreement about the need for greater cooperation, collaboration and engagement in business, we’re practicing the opposite every time we choose indirect communication.
At the heart of the choice for indirect communication is emotional escape. While there is growing recognition for the need for greater emotional intelligence within organizations, there’s little being practiced when we opt for expediency and emotional avoidance.
A Wall Street Journal article examining the role of eye contact in business communication focused on a study that stated that none of the 220 species of nonhuman primates have whites of the eyes. Researchers posit that the white backdrop allows others to easily tell where we are looking and this serves the purposes of cooperation. The author states, “Cooperation is important because it leads to connection and trust.” Dr Roel Vertegaal, an expert on eye contact found that subjects were 22% more likely to speak when gaze behavior was synchronized with conversational attention. Also, task performance was 46% higher when gaze was synchronized.
With face to face communication on the decline, can trust and cooperation be close behind?  Research from the University of Illinois and George Mason University found that “face to face contact yielded the most trust and cooperation while email netted the least, with videoconferencing somewhere in between.” The study also suggests that without face-to-face interaction, workers are less likely to trust the other person is working harder on the project, and are less willing to work harder themselves.
Make no mistake about it; we’re all subject to an over reliance on indirect communication.  Challenging questions, tedious conversations, disagreements, personality clashes and end of the day fatigue make indirect communication far more appealing than direct face to face contact.  It’s important for us to understand when we do this, we’re making a choice. Indirect communication does little to build relationship and hone our own emotional resiliency.
In his review of Sherry Turkle’s fascinating book, Alone Together, Rafael Behr writes about how the suppression of our anxiety produces an even greater reliance on technology to mediate human relations. “Human beings can be needy, capricious, threatening, but at least calls can be diverted, emails blocked. Facebook friends, “unfriended.”  Behr writes that Turkle refers to this as a symptom of incipient robotism. The network, Behr suggests, encourages narcissism, teaching us to think of other people as a problem to be managed or a resource to be exploited.
It’s easy to dismiss these critiques as a form of neo-luddism or chalk it up to generational differences. Surely there are personal preferences that drive communication choices (if they are being consciously made).  But more often these choices are being driven by personal and cultural habits.
Are we sliding towards a dark future of atomization, reduced to tribal spheres of belonging, hobbled by an inability to communicate and emotionally connect?  Rafael Behr reminds us that, “It is the decision we make to put our faith in technology as the antidote to human frailty, when acceptance of frailty is what makes us human.”
We’re living in a very different world than just 15 years ago. We’ve reaped enormous benefits from technology and the promise is still great. But I’m with futurist John Naisbett who believes that “The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it is to be human.”
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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Related articles: Humanizing Workplace Relationships: People Aren’t Tasks, Workplace Relationships: You Have to Care, We Need New Models for Workplace Relationships, Part 1

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