For all of the means of communication at our disposal, I could not reach my daughter this morning. I am visiting her in Bloomington, Indiana, working at her kitchen table while she and her husband are at their respective jobs and my granddaughter is at the school for global children. I needed to leave the house and take a manuscript to FedEx, but I didn’t have a key and I didn’t want to leave their home unlocked.
I tried to call her cell. I texted. I tried calling my son-in-law. I emailed. I went on to Facebook (if she had time for social media, she would have taken my call, but I was desperate). I reached her friend (BFF) Jenny on Facebook chat, but Jenny didn’t know where a key might be. Holly finally called me back two hours later, but there isn’t an extra key in the house. We’ll go to FedEx when she gets off work.
Pardon my self-reference here, but this week’s Every Word Counts started with a blog in the New York Times about the way communications in the mobile digital era are redefining etiquette. Most of Nick Bilton’s piece revolves around people who “waste your time” with communications. He brags about ignoring his father’s voicemail and communicating with his mother through Twitter. Very New York.
When you need to communicate with someone, you choose between several channels of contact. You can call the office, call their cell phone, send a text message to their phone or through AIM or email. You could, of course, mail them a letter or card through the postal service or even get up and go visit. Your course of action depends on what kind of information you are exchanging and how quickly you need it. I guess I didn’t need to go out as soon as I thought this morning.
Acknowledge or Ignore?
Bilton claims that most of our emails are a waste of time and clutter the recipient’s mailbox. You have probably heard people explain that they ignored your mail because they get “50 or 60 emails a day.” The commentary makes a valid point in that some questions asked by email could be answered with a simple Google or Bing search. He points to lmgtfy.com as a worthy answer to someone asking for directions to your office or what time you close. An acronym for “Let Me Google That For You,” the link goes to a Google search screen.
But email is the new letter. Email is the preferred channel for asking a series of specific questions and delivering substantive information. Email works because the user can read it when they have time. Many productivity experts recommend that the busy person schedule one or two specific blocks of time during the day to read and respond to email. If you don’t waste your recipient’s time with your mails, they are more likely to open, read and respond. If you use the subject line well, specifying the nature and content of the mail, it makes it easier to filter and process your mail.
I am a major proponent of the email meeting. When there are several items to discuss among people with different schedules, work habits and responsibilities, sending a well-structured email and asking for the recipients to “reply all” with their input creates an open, literate conversation. The participants can sign off on a concept or comment on their own time, without interrupting their day. It’s not perfect – I don’t recommend it for brainstorming, but an e-mail meeting can be very valuable.
Choose well which emails you ignore. A habitual mass communications emailer who sends torrents of odd information several times a day or inane jokes really needs a more active social media life, and you may choose to ignore them. Spam and subscriptions you don’t have time to cancel can also be trashed without reading. But if someone sends a message directly to you or a small group of associates and the mail carries a document or other important information, you should open it at your earliest convenience. If you open it and read it and it’s direct or personal, you should acknowledge, even if it’s a quick message that you will respond in full at a later time.
Text: the Less Obtrusive Call
Small bits of information can be delivered by text. We have created a vocabulary of acronyms and symbols to make text more succinct, quicker to send and read. The recipient can note the information or answer a quick question without much interruption. It’s less personal, but most exchanges are mind to mind rather than heart to heart.
When Only a Call Will Suffice
Voice carries emotion, conveys mood, reveals intent the written word or abbreviation cannot transmit. It opens a channel for exchange. You can text your beloved that you’re leaving work and coming home, but you should call him (or her) if you have to work late and you’re going to reschedule the evening. You would not propose marriage by text, but you shouldn’t do it on the phone, either.
We have created these channels over a long span of time. In ancient days, the only way to exchange data was in person. You walked over to the next hut to discuss the day’s agriculture and gossip about others. When people got busier, they sent emissaries to deliver the message. Then we began writing things on walls, stones, bark and papyrus. It has only been in the last 150 years that we stretched wires for telegraph, then telephone. Things have progressed quickly, and today we bounce bits off of satellites 22,000 miles above us to reach the next door neighbor.
As with all technological developments, we lose something in the process. We might get the message there faster than ever, but you can’t look a text message in the eye. You can approve a document or accept an invitation, but you can’t seal it with a handshake. You can ? – but it’s not as genuine as your excellent smile. I was unable to take my manuscript to FedEx this morning (would have been a nice walk), but I can talk with Holly on the way there and enjoy a few more minutes of this precious visit. I can abide with that.
San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is half of Extraordinary Words, providing effective communications for business and non-profit development. You can find Extraordinary Words on Facebook, LinkedIn and its website. You can read more of gary’s writing on his personal blog and by searching The Rivard Report for “Every Word Counts.”