Despite having more ways than ever to communicate, it does not appear that our understanding of one another’s meaning is improving. Actually, I believe it’s getting worse. I’m not the first to write that all these new technologies, great as they are, are also wreaking workplace and social havoc. I thought about this last week while traveling in Atlanta with an out-of-town colleague. She showed me her smart phone’s voice recognition capabilities allowing her to say a name and then place the call.
The problem is the person she was calling has a nickname using several initials at the start — she’s not Nancy, Joan or Sharon, she’s “AJ” to us. She tried to make a voice dialed call by saying her colleague’s name — the same way she’d say it in person — but could never get the right number. Instead, she figured out a way to say the name so that the computer would hear and understand what she meant. She did this by blending the initials in a way that made sense to the computer’s artificial intelligence. It hit me that this is what’s wrong with a lot of our person-to-person communications — we know what we want to say, we know what we want it to mean — but we communicate in a way which means one thing to us but it’s heard differently by the recipient. It all may be perfectly innocent but it can still cause friction and misunderstandings.
This is not the same problem as sending messages with salty, crude or abrasive language. Actually, it’s far subtler and more difficult to address. Here’s part of the problem. Each of us forms impressions of others, rightly or wrongly, which are both conscious and unconscious. If we have a positive relationship with a colleague or co-worker when we see their message, we’re inclined to presume a positive intent and interpret their message accordingly. We’re likely not even aware we’re doing that. Conversely, most of us have nemeses in our lives; when we see their numbers flash up on caller ID, we take a deep breath or shudder dreading the voice that we’ll soon hear. The same thing happens with email — we see a message and if it’s from someone with whom we’ve had a bad experience or have a currently challenging relationship, we expect the worst even before we read the message that follows. It affects how we read and interpret whatever is written. Two people can send exactly the same message, with the same font and punctuation, and it can be “heard” differently. Imagine getting this message from your best friend and then the most annoying, irksome person in your work or personal life: “Great seeing you. That was some presentation you made. I couldn’t believe you did that.”
This “unconscious” problem is getting worse as texts which, are shorter and less thought out than emails — if that’s possible to imagine — are growing at astounding rates. These messages, more convenient than a face-to-face or voice-to-voice communication, may save time in the short run but cause increasing confusion. Further, as we increasingly work with and communicate with people of different generations, nationalities, cultures and idioms, misunderstandings are likely to grow rather than wane.
Technology will march forward as new devices are created and we work at a faster more frenzied pace. I don’t have a ready solution to this type of miscommunication except that I think emails and texts should be used, when possible, for raw information rather than messages which require tone of voice and even body language [face-to-face or even via Skype or Face Time] to be effectively understood.
Also, the sender and recipient have twin responsibilities. The sender of a text or email should try to consider how the recipient will “hear” the message and take care it’s written with that in mind. The recipient needs not to read too much voice into the words on the screen or their ironically named “smart” phone. This does take time — a diminishing resource — but all of us can devote a few seconds of thought to avoid hours or more of disruption.