THE PHILLIPS EDGE

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When to Email and When to Call

By: Bill Withers
Role: Community Exceleration! Team

New technologies get blamed for “dehumanizing” communication, but the key has always been knowing when to use which medium. Before writing, there was speaking. You talked directly with the other person. If she was far away, you traveled or sent a messenger. Even in the Stone Age, the medium was the message. If one chose to use a messenger over traveling to another, it could mean many things: I’m too busy, I’m more important than you, I’m infirm, my feet hurt, and so forth. You also had the opportunity to misinterpret or to apply your own positive or negative meaning to person’s choice of medium: “Here he comes in person. This must be big,” or “His messenger is way better looking than he is. What’s he up to?”

From the beginning, the new “messenger technology” could be used to avoid conflict or to escalate it from a distance: “Tell Qfwfq that we’re not speaking.”

Then came writing, and not only did we not have to be in the same place and time to communicate, but there was a new set of additional symbols to complicate things. Lovers, governments, religions, artists, and traders carefully chose not only what was written, but on what and with what. We have love letters on blue paper and proclamations carved in stone. Being able to leave a note for someone added to our repertoire of escalation and avoidance.   I think of these communications as “roommate letters”: the long litany of complaints and issues about who ate what food or used whose stuff that are written and left on the kitchen table instead of being talked about. This tactic can be temporarily cathartic for the writer, and gives a false sense that things are “settled”.

OK, guys. For the last time, I have a class at 8:00 a.m. and need some hot water for my shower. Not too much to ask. And I’m the only one who buys Ring Dings, so I should be the only ones that eats them. If you’re too healthy to buy them, you should be too healthy to eat them. And while we’re on health, what is that growing in the sink? It’s not mine!

I’m not worried about our losing human contact because of new technology. Faceless communication has always been with us. What we need to remember is that there is a built-in delay that comes with everything; on the other hand, talking live has its own set of challenges.

At the office, if your email rubs me the wrong way, I have time to imagine all sorts of responses from you to any of my possible replies. My communication with you now becomes tactical instead of being about understanding. The original important message gets lost in my tactics, for example, as I “cc” others to build support for how reasonable I am or to get others to agree with me about how grievously I have been wronged.

Team: As has been previously posted, use of our kitchen facilities is a privilege, and we expect team members to adhere to some simple rules. First of all, some items are meant to share. Other items (for example, the Ring Dings in my desk drawer, Jerry) are clearly not for general consumption. The same person who seems to be taking these also seems to be the one who dumps food into the sink without cleaning up. This kind of unprofessional, inconsiderate behavior will only erode our team but is not indicative of our corporate culture.

Talking with people works best for me, especially when there is potential for misunderstanding. I Skype with a friend in London, Gotomeeting with colleagues in India, leave a video in a drop box for my team in Shanghai, and send an email to the person in the cubicle right next to me. I love how new technologies let me work in real time with partners around the world, and I marvel at how often we forget the simple face to face approach when dealing with people in the same building.

Talking in real time benefits from the magic of the instantaneous do-over. What makes real time face to face or voice to voice communication such a reliable relationship builder is that we can quickly course correct as we go, before a slip becomes a derailment. If you and I pick the wrong words, the wrong tone, or the wrong approach, we can tell by each other’s responses, and adjust as we continue on.

Email is great for communicating routine information or documenting conversations. If something is going to be controversial—or if it becomes controversial after an email or two—then make a call or a face to face visit before the pile of misunderstandings bury your original intent.

Each group of us—pairs, couples, families, teams, communities—jointly crafts a way of talking with each other that becomes ours alone. This is what builds our connection. When we have this connection, it is more likely that we will be understood when we write to one another, whether we are sending an email across continents or leaving a note on the kitchen table.

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