Posted by: mikeduckett | December 1, 2010

Talk To Me – but not in a ‘Halfalogue’!

Consider this scenario: you have a very important message for someone and it is vital you are clearly understood. The person you want to communicate with may be in the room next door but you can’t be sure. Even more critically, this message must be received by the other person urgently, before they do something you’ll both regret! Would you consider just opening the door a little and shouting your message into the room then closing the door?

That’s effectively what you do when you text or email the message. Unless you at least speak to your recipient how can you know a) if they even got it and b) that they understood your meaning? Of course texting and emailing can serve a useful purpose, but as media for important communication take care! We seem to be loosening our rules to allow the same use of grammar and punctuation we use in texts to creep into emails. Apart from the obvious issue that you are restricting yourself to the barest minimum way of expressing yourself, because it is seen as swift you might mistake it for being efficient.

Yet I’m surprised how often people tell me they arrived at an appointment only to be told, “Oh but I sent you an email 30 minutes ago to cancel”. (Maybe the assumption is that we all have Blackberrys).  And don’t think that an urgent text would have been better; because the mobile networks always allow voice calls to take precedence so it could take up to 72 hours for your text to be received! Isn’t it up to you to make the effort to ensure your audience has received and understood your message the way you intended?

Even for social communication email is a dangerous medium unless you give as much thought  to composition as you would have done to a hand crafted letter or memo. Be particularly wary of the use of humour – research regularly shows that the tone you literally had in mind when writing is not heard by the recipient in that way. See ‘Oops; How Sarcastic Emails Fall Flat’ for example.

Whilst talking of efficiency, am I alone or does anyone else with a fast changing diary get frustrated by the insistence on using email to arrange an appointment? Whilst it may seem efficient to take a few seconds to send an email with two alternative dates, by the time it has been received, attended to and replied to with alternative dates a day or two can pass before you hit on a mutually convenient date, especially if your diary changes faster than the email traffic. One ‘phone call can have that appointment agreed in 5 minutes instead of 2 days.

So here is my recommendation for a hierarchy of communication media in descending order of value and ascending order of danger!

  1. Meeting
  2. Speaking – via ‘phone/skype/conference call etc.
  3. Writing
  4. Emailing
  5. Texting

Simply sending a message is not communicating, any more than throwing a message in a bottle into the sea is!

And by the way, whilst we’re talking about the value of talking, I admit there are problems with this medium of communication – when you’re in a train carriage or a cafe! For your unintended audience this has been called the ‘halfalogue’ – hearing just one side of a conversation.

A team of psychologists at Cornell University have been looking at why overheard mobile conversations are so annoying. (See: Overheard Cell-Phone Conversations). Students were asked to perform a task demanding attention whilst listening to either a) a conversation in which both people could be heard or b) one where only one person could be overheard. Only the ‘halfalogue’ interfered with their performance on the task. Because the conversation is more difficult to predict we find it harder to ignore.

In fact they conclude that paying attention to an overheard mobile ‘phone conversation is a reflex. So although when we’re talking on a mobile in public we tend to have a sense of privacy, beware – others will be listening and being distracted because they can’t help it!

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