I love being able to have conversations with intelligent people. Especially ones who aren’t conceited about it 🙂 I have had the absolute pleasure of dining with a fascinating man this week here in Cincinnati who has caused me to put some serious thought into communication methods today and the fact that they are really costing us in quality what they supposedly make up in quantity. As someone who communicates for a living, this is huge to me and I am compelled to share some thoughts, both his and mine, on the matter.
For those of you over the age of 30, think back to when you were a little kid – when you wanted to play with your friends, how did you contact them? You either called them up on the phone, or you went directly to their house to ask permission. Children today don’t have to do that – they can text, then can IM, or they can email. What’s obviously lacking here? Conversation – real live conversation. With the communication tools we have today, we really don’t have to have actual conversations with other human beings to communicate thoughts, ideas, and information with them. We seem to have managed to seriously devalue live human interaction as an “inefficient use of our precious time”, and that is a really scary thought. Next thing you know, we’ll be back to grunting and drawing pictures on cave walls (some are already leaning in that direction).
Have we allowed so much noise into our lives that we can’t filter things out and thus resort to perpetually skimming everything, including our face-to-face time with people? Here’s an experiment – for those of you with a PDA phone, do you freak out if you leave it at home when you go out? When you’re having lunch or dinner with a friend or colleague, are you constantly checking it when a new text, call, or email comes through? Imagine the message you are sending to that person you’re with while you do this – “you’re not as important as this message I’m receiving, even though I have no idea what it’s about.” I have a couple of colleagues who, when we do actually talk on the phone, I can always tell they’re doing at least 3 other things at the same time, because the conversations are short and choppy and usually get cut short due to an email or another, more important activity. I understand their lives are chaotic, but I can’t help but feel devalued when this happens all the time.
By the way, while eating with my new friend, both of us had our phones on the table, and while we were discussing this very topic, both of our phones were ringing and buzzing. But we maintained our conversation because that’s what was the most important thing at the moment. It was a breath of fresh air to eat with someone who was present, and it compelled me to return the favor to him.
What have Twitter and Facebook done to us? I of course bring these things up tongue-in-cheek, as you know I am a big fan of Twitter, and I just launched our Waggener Edstrom Staffing page on Facebook. I definitely see value in both of these tools – when used for the right reasons. And what are the right reasons? You have to make that determination yourself. But honestly, do we really need to know every sordid detail of everyone’s life? I read a Facebook update this morning about someone who said he was coughing up some nasty stuff – that, in my opinion, is WTMI (way too much information). I have contacts on Twitter who don’t respond to a call, text, or IM, but they’re right on top of a DM from Twitter. There are “friends” on my Facebook who won’t pick up the phone to talk to me, but continue to leave notes on my Wall, or write responses to my blog postings instead. And by the way, the loose use of the term “friend” these days lends about as much credibility to the word as people have assigned lately to the term “love”, but that’s an entirely different blog post.
Have we achieved critical mass in alternative communication methods? As an avid user of all these tools, I’ll say no. But I think we definitely need to return to the basics when it comes to gleaning any kind of value from them. It boils down to relationships – they must be built with human interaction. Technology cannot culture a relationship.
If you have a colleague who lives close enough to you, let them know that they are important to you and meet them for lunch one day. Leave your PDA in your pocket and put it on silent while you’re eating. Focus on that conversation, it’s only an hour and the world won’t come to a screeching halt if you don’t check your emails for 60 minutes.
If you do a lot of work on the phone, face away from your computer when you are talking with someone. You’ll be less tempted to multitask without seeing things whizzing across your screen. I learned this the hard way when one of my co-workers called me out for multi-tasking and not paying attention to our conversation one day. Busted!
Resist the Pavlov’s Dog reaction – don’t go dashing off to check your email, check your phone, or respond to an IM when you hear a buzz or a bell. Several of my colleagues have implemented a strict policy of checking email at set times every day to be more efficient in their work, but my hope is that in doing this, they’ve also made themselves more available for real human interaction. Donato DiOrio recently posted on his blog about filtering and actually requested some input for ideas on how to best tackle this issue.
Please don’t think I’m pointing fingers here – because there are 3 pointing right back at me. I’d be a hypocrite to write about this topic without acknowledging my own shortcomings in several of these areas. Admittedly, I’m not a big phone person. In fact, those of you who know me know I really dislike talking on the phone, and thus I don’t pick it up that often. But what you may not know is that I absolutely love in-person interaction. Having lunch this week with my fascinating friend was a breath of fresh air for me, not just because of the stimulating conversation, but because we actually got to be in the same place together having that conversation. Those of you whom I’ve met at conferences know how much I enjoy attending those because we take the conversation offline and get real with each other.
My take-home message is this: while technology has made it easier for us to consume more information, it doesn’t necessarily make it easier for us to decipher and organize that information on a basis of importance. Technology cannot substitute for human emotion. There is still a very real human element that must be present for quality communication. Don’t mistake efficient communication for effective communication – they are not the same thing.
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