Saturday, October 11, 2008

Email -- a great tool, but no substitute for REAL communication

I have often marveled at the new communication methods and tools that have emerged over the past several year. As a business owner who employees a good deal of "twentysomething" employees, I have seen the proliferation of IMs, Skype, Facebook and MySpace, and now Twitter as communication tools.

There is no question that these tools have changed the way we communicate, and have certainly changed the PR community as well. But there is a danger inherent in the immediate, truncated communication that is favored by modern communication tools -- that danger is in misinterpretation of meaning and/or intent, which strikes at the very core of good communication.

Take, for example email -- a communication tool that has been around like for-EVER it seems.

Email is one of the greatest communication tools in our arsenal. It allows us to communicate with great immediacy, and with virtually anyone around the globe. And with so many "smart phones" in use today, most people can pick up email all day and in any place.

But there is a problem inherent in email that is now getting a good deal of attention. In short, email has no subtlety, offers no richness of communication, provides no avenues for subtext, and certainly favors a truncation of meaning.

It turns out that email is a lousy way to communicate anything but cold, hard facts, figures and direction.

Daniel Goldman, author of "Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships" (Bantam) writes about this dichotomy in an October 7, 2007 article in the New York Times. In the article, Goldman writes "We tend to misinterpret positive email messages as more neutral, and neutral ones as more negative, than the sender intended."

Why? Goldman tells us it's because "Email can be emotionally impoverished when it comes to nonverbal messages that add nuance and valence to our words. The typed words are denuded of the rich, emotional context we convey in person or over the phone."

Goldman also quotes Clay Shirkey, an adjunct professor in NYU's interactive communication program, who pointedly says, "When you communicate with a group you only know through electronic channels, it's like having functional Asperger's Syndrome -- you are very logical and rational, but emotionally brittle."

It is for that reason that we encourage all of our employees to push away from the keyboard, and pick up the telephone. Moreover, we require our account service team to see their clients face-to-face at least once a month (if not more!). This is especially important when communicating difficult or complex news.

The article is a short, but very enlightening read. I encourage you to check it out here.