Is electronic communication hampering our ability to communicate face-to-face? That’s the question I tackle in "Lost in Translation" , in the September 2005 issue of Inc.
The answer is a qualified yes. In this story, I make the point that in business, people are relying too heavily on email, sending text messages on sensitive matters that should really be handled face-to-face, or at least voice-to-voice. I’ve personally found that even people who are communication professionals–editors, writers –have a difficult time keeping control of their tone in email exchanges, especially when the subject is controversial. The more you cop out on having such conversations in person or over the phone, the rustier it seems you get at handling such interactions with aplomb. If you’re prone to phone phobia, or confrontation anxiety, email and its ilk provide a neat way to never properly develop those skills.
This story could be read as a Luddite screed –down with email! –and I don’t mean it that way at all. The issue here really isn’t the medium, but the message: people who are lousy at communicating in person are probably not going to be any good at it electronically, and the chances of them getting better at it are small if they avoid real-time conversations. New technologies create new ways for people to communicate and build connections with each other, and that’s truly exciting. But there’s still the problem of the "wetware" –the person –whose fuzzy thinking, lack of diplomacy, and poor listening skills can still bring even the most sophisticated communication system to its knees.
When I interviewed Barry Wellman, director of NetLab at the University of Toronto for my story, he started his comments to me with this: "In the old days, which means seven years ago, we used to think that email and IM were very, very different than face-to-face communication, and that maybe they were even separate worlds. Now we know it’s not true –they fit together in a seamless ecology." Yes. And the ecosystem can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on the skills of the people who inhabit it.
In my story, Wellman also says that "the face-to-face world and the bit-to-bit world can fit together." There’s an interesting article, Social Machines, in the August 2005 MIT Technology Review that reviews the various ways this is happening. "We don’t want to talk with computers, we want to talk through them," writes author Wade Rousch. He talks about a Boston start-up called Proxpro, "that’s testing a cellphone-based service whereby a traveling businessperson can register a change in location with an SMS message; if a potential contact who matches the travelers pre-specified areas of interest (say Oracle databases) is nearby, both parties are notified, and they can use SMS to arrange a meeting."
Now that’s pretty nifty. But, if one or both people who sign up for this service stink at face-to-face communication, won’t the service be fairly useless? Or, put another way, if they’re going to invest in such a service, shouldn’t they also invest in upgrading their interpersonal communication skills? Bits and bytes can bring people together–but they can only take you just so far.