Pick up the Phone

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

Melanie Turek, Contributor

June 1, 2006

3 Min Read

As we move more and more to a virtual world, it’s important not to lose sight of something: Sometimes, it’s really important to speak to someone live and/or in person. But our heavy use of e-mail and IM often cause us to forget that. Although those technologies, and others, can boost collaboration and productivity, they have their drawbacks, too—and one of the biggest is that it’s harder to convey nuance and emotion in text than it is in person (whether live or on the phone). Turns out that can have serious consequences.

Researchers are studying the effects of text messaging on communications, according to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor. For instance, a study by Professor Justin Kruger of New York University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago looked at whether sarcasm is detected in e-mail messages. They concluded that senders of e-mail overestimate their ability to communicate feelings, while recipients overestimate their ability to interpret them correctly.

Part of the problem is that people tend to think everyone else thinks like them—that is, I assume that you, dear reader, will interpret what I say the way I intend it, rather than through your own contextual lense. Humans rely on visual and audio cues to “translate” the intention behind other people’s words, but in the absence of those cues they go with their gut—that is, they rely on their knowledge of themselves rather than their knowledge of the other person to decode the message. E-mail complicates the issue because it is fast and casual; I would add that IM is an even bigger challenge in this regard.

The key takeaway, say the researchers, is that if what you need to discuss is particularly important, sensitive, or subtle, do it either in person or over the phone. You’ll have a much better chance of being heard. Indeed, Kruger and Epley discovered that people are much less likely to prejudge one another if they communicate by phone rather than e-mail.

Michael Morris, a professor in negotiations at Columbia University, who is also researching this area, says that negotiations are also much more likely to be successful when done live, because those personal interactions create a rich “buffer zone” that protects against tension that could otherwise jeopardize the deal.

There are other problems, too. Electronic correspondents tend to hit “send” just a little too quickly, for instance. A few months back, I spoke to an IT executive who bemoaned the use of text messaging in his company (e-mail, IM, SMS, you name it) because, he said, employees no longer thought enough about what they were saying. The level of discourse and strategic thinking had gone down significantly from the days when people regularly spoke on the phone or in person, he thought, and he wasn’t sure how to get that back.

One way might be through click-to-call capabilities, which can alleviate some of the reluctance to pick up the phone. If inside an e-mail or IM message a person can easily elevate a communication to a phone call with a simple mouse click, he’ll probably be more apt to do so—and that could benefit business down the road.

About the Author(s)

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights