In Bill Gates description of his work process, he said something that I found disturbing:
At Microsoft, e-mail is the medium of choice, more than phone calls, documents, blogs, bulletin boards, or even meetings (voicemails and faxes are actually integrated into our e-mail in-boxes).
The future of office communication, if what Gates says is any indication, is its sparsest form: e-mail. I’ve posted about this before, but I’ve got a few more things to add on this topic.
A while ago, I sat beside an interesting person who conducts leadership seminars for the FAA. Among the many insightful thoughts on leadership that he offered, he said that “Communication is 70% body language and facial expression, 20% voice tone, and 10% what is actually being said.” The numbers may be off, but the concept is sound—the actual written transcript of a face-to-face conversation fails to convey a significant amount of what was communicated. Try reading Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” and see how little the words represent what is actually being communicated.
People convey a significant amount of information in their facial reactions and body language without realizing it. I’m not just talking about the “Oh no she di’int” kind of looks that display obvious reactions or emotions, I’m also referring to the cues that are given during conversation that help the listener interpret what the speaker is saying. People can change the meaning of their words with intonation, a smile, a shrug of the shoulders, a furrowed brow. Actors know this from improvisational exercises where they have to create a completely understandable scene with nonsense sounds or create completely different stories using the same dialogue.
Kathy Sierra posted a great commentary on how humans have evolved into sophisticated pattern recognizers to pick up on the subtlest of visual cues from other members of their species. I won’t repeat what she says, its worth reading her post in full. I will add that there has been significant research on our ability to detect intent from seemingly imperceptible facial cues by former UCSF Psychology professor Paul Ekman—you may have read a great profile of him by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker a while ago.
I’m sure that a group within Microsoft is hard at work creating a system that incorporates avatars within e-mails or instant messaging systems—serving up customer service Second Life-style—under the assumption that this will restore that need for visual contact while communicating. It won’t.
E-mail is a necessity in business and life, but it is no replacement for face-to-face communication. Previously I discussed miscommunication that can occur by eliminating the additional information from tone and visual cues, resulting in misunderstandings that would never have occurred had either videoconferencing or even a phone been used. There is something more than this lost, however, by relying excessively on e-mail for communication.
What is additionally lost is the back and forth that occurs in conversations, the refinement of what is said, the interplay of minds that can cause the conversation to go into a rewarding and unexpected tangent. Everyone should be able to think of times when a discussion that you expected to be short and on a single topic turned into a rich conversation of new ideas, perhaps producing long-lasting effects or resulting in the development of new initiatives. All of this is lost in e-mail, where there is no interplay. Think of a time when you had a great discussion with a friend over a beer or two, perhaps sitting on their porch at night, with the conversation ranging across all the important issues to you in the world. Now imagine yourself with a beer, sitting in front of a PC monitor, sending e-mails back and forth to that same friend. The ideas just ground to a halt, and not because you are no longer under the stars for inspiration.
One hundred years ago when letters were a much more common form of communication than today, I’m sure that no one suggested that letter writing should replace real conversation if the latter were possible, business or otherwise. Letter writing allowed thoughtful and careful commentary. Face-to-face discussion allowed exploration into unplanned and sometimes exhilarating thoughts, allowed one to realize that the other is misunderstanding and to add clarity to one’s point, allowed the listener to interject and ask questions where they need additional information. Just because e-mail makes delivery of written communication instantaneous doesn’t eliminate these differences.
This week is TV-Turnoff Week. Perhaps we could use an E-mail Elimination Week.