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17 January 2019
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Instant communication does not imply good communication

19 May 2014 

Communication has been on my mind this week, and I have been reflecting on the way that it has changed so much in the last 20 years or so.

The vehicle for that change has been technology and it has affected verbal and written communication by giving us an opportunity to interact in different ways, the most striking of which, perhaps, is in the immediacy with which we can reach others.

Although Telex had been around for a while, it was email that was the first big change and the ability to write and transmit a letter over a telephone line to another computer using a portable device was something of a revelation. Yes, the first portable terminals did weight about 10 kg and looked like a typewriter, and there were some limitations – mainly because it was a closed loop system – but that was a big move forward in written communication. And the arrival of the internet shortly afterwards allowed email use to explode. 

With the benefit the failures were exposed, though. Email seems immediate when you send it, but although it may arrive almost immediately at the other end, it may not be seen for hours. However, there came an assumption that sending implied receipt and that responsibility had passed at that point.

Standards also began to decline because when you had your correspondence typed by a professional that person would provide a sense check and was also guardian of corporate standards regarding grammar, spelling and, to some degree, content. The advent of email saw not just the demise of the typing pool, but of quality.

Email also changed human interaction because people in the same building – even in the same room – began to email each other instead of talking. I can remember one accountant enthusing over how much time this was saving by keeping people at their desks – overlooking the time it was taking to type instead of talk, let alone the loss of personal interaction.

The mobile phone had been around in car phone terms for a while for a few people with deep pockets before it began to become a little more portable in the mid-80s. Its passage from business tool to everyone’s essential took a little while, as did the move from weight-training device to candy bar size. But, all of a sudden, instant communication had become a reality and basic courtesy vanished. People could interrupt you whenever and wherever and from anywhere – and they would, not just because they could, but because they thought that they needed to. And in the same way that people had begun to email you from a few feet away, they would now phone you – even when they could see you.

Text messaging came on the back of the mobile phone and evolved its own form of shorthand that allowed faster exchanges. But at least there is some discretion in text because it does not involve any vocal input. Telephone conversations are often either totally inane or incredibly indiscreet, ranging from the flurry of “I’m on the 9.15 as usual, see you in about 40 minutes” (is this a hint to get the lover out?) to the “Well, we had the meeting, but what a bunch of plonkers”, where the caller will often reveal the name of the company as they brief their colleague on the inadequacies of the other party and demonstrate their own superiority in outsmarting the hapless opposition.

Easy communication is not good communication, nor is it efficient and we should learn how to use the new tools in better ways. 

Communication is two-way for a start, so some consideration of the other party’s ability to listen and respond would be a good starting point. Next would be some thought about with whom you are communicating because talking loudly on your phone in a public place means that you have an audience of 20 or 30 people who do not want to hear what you have to say, and you really should not want them to hear it either. 

Finally, consider the problem that, oral or written, instant communication is just that; once the words have left they will be received, and all too often the words that you have used may have benefited from some thought before they were uttered or sent.

John Bowen is an FM consultant