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It’s Not You, it’s Me…Sent from my iPhone

June 27, 2013

We’re all wired now.  With computers, smartphones, iPads and social media, we’re communicating more stuff to more people, much more quickly than ever.

But that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Several decades ago, when a paper memo, typed on an IBM Selectric and reproduced on a Xerox, was the state of the art in business communication, I learned to be skeptical about just how effective a memo really was.  For simple topics, like “The men’s room on the 11th floor will be under repair from Monday to Friday”, memos were just fine.  But if you wanted to communicate complex issues  – especially issues regarding change or innovation -they didn’t really work all that well.  The problem was that a manager who sent the memo out naturally thought that he’d wrapped everything up on one page of 40-pound bond, but the recipients too often were left scratching their heads – “Yeah, that sounds good, but what about this?  What about that?  And what, exactly, am I supposed to do?”  A memo didn’t answer questions.

A memo was a one-way communication device.  And if you want to change things – and really change them for the better – you need to include all the players in active conversation.

Reliance on memos led to an authoritarian, top-down business culture – only the bosses had secretaries with typewriters; their minions were voiceless.   In most situations that required enlisting the buy-in of a substantial number of people, a meeting – where the issue could thoroughly discussed and all the “What about that’s” could be asked – was a far better way of communicating.  Nothing beats face-to-face.

Of course, there are lots of benefits from advanced communication technology, but in my experience, it too often suffers from the same shortcomings as paper memos.  As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s worse – I once worked in an office where managers in the same building hardly ever actually talked to each other, they just fired off emails and text messages.   It felt dysfunctional, as though people who should have been actively engaged with each other were actually practicing  a form of social avoidance.  When we should have been bonding and bouncing ideas around, we were tossing off emails to a guy who was, literally, sitting in the next office.  It felt like our social skills – and our organizational coherence – were suffering death by technology.

I think the same thing is happening on a personal level.  Texting your wife that you love her might be thoughtful and convenient, but it’s not an embrace or a dozen roses or a romantic dinner or a weekend in Bermuda.

There’s just something sterile and slapdash about how we communicate these days.

This post was inspired by a story a woman friend shared with me today.  She’s an accomplished professional, at the top of her field.  She’s also beautiful and smart as a whip. She’d recently been seeing a Harvard-trained professional, but, after a few months and a few dinners, she didn’t see it going anywhere – she just considered him to be an interesting friend.  But in his mind, because he was wealthy and eligible, she should have been throwing herself at him.

So, the other day, he sent her an email telling her he was breaking off their relationship because he thought she was “just using men to have a good time”.  I translate that as, “I gave you rides in my Porsche and bought you dinner and you didn’t put out.”  This to a woman who can afford her own Porsche and her own dinners.

In the “old days”, a proper gentleman would never think of breaking things off by telephone.  He’d arrange a casual lunch or dinner and look the woman in the eyes and break the news as a man – or a woman – properly did: face to face.

But with email and texting, we don’t have to do things the hard, old way.  We can do it electronically, and toss off a gratuitous insult while we’re at it.

Who needs social skills when you have an iPhone?

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  1. dan1dunn permalink

    One of the things I’ve found to be most frustrating about electronic communication- memos, e-mails, and texts- is that it often takes much longer to explain what you mean/need/want. I have made it clear with many of the companies I do business with that when I place a phone call, they better answer. I don’t have time to e-mail back and forth when a 15 second ‘live’ conversation can clear up all discrepancies on the spot.

  2. I agree Ken. (and I worked for your buddy who didn’t stop by my office for 3 months!!) As an IT Director, I am always promoting the use of technology, but in some instances it hinders productivity. I work in a small office and there are people who will Instant Message me questions that require very long answers or explanations. Why not just walk the 20 feet to ask or give me a call. I also have a teenage daughter who makes plans with her friends via text messages. A process of finding out the who, what, when and where turns into a process that can last hours before I can get her to give me all of the info, when calling her friend would certainly expedite the process. There are some good reasons connect with co-workings using technology, such as working with teams spread out across offices and time zones. New office technologies are turning towards corporate social media (built into systems such as Office365) for the workplace to bring teams together, easily share information and connect virtually. This is a step in the right direction but as the Smart Phone generation enters the workforce, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

    • I figured this post would resonate with you. The thing about rising generations is that they’re losing the basic social and communication skills. There’s a lot to be said for bullshitting around the coffee machine or knocking on a colleague’s door and saying, “Hey, got a minute?”

      At the management level, that sort of textured interaction is key – that’s where you find out what other people know; that’s where the loop is connected.

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