I’m a fairly gregarious, thoughtful person, comfortable with expressing myself in writing and also in person. Others have found a different balance, and will gravitate towards video calling, or Facebook chat. But some sort of guidelines are called for here. I hope my thoughts on how to use these technologies, as subjective as they are, will be helpful.
These are easy to spend time composing, and even easier to ignore when they arrive. Email is great for anything long, and maybe a little bit complicated. But I’m a fairly well-written, literate person. I’ve seen too many maddeningly terse one-sentence email replies, which might explain why I take a while to answer non-critical emails. I’ll usually take the time to write a more complete answer if I have the luxury of time. Neither is good or bad, but those one-sentence messages don’t take advantage of all that email can do.
But eloquence can go too far; no matter how compellingly written, an email that’s more than a paragraph or so will usually cause me to close it, clicking “Mark as Unread”. I’ll get to it later, when I have time to read it all. Overlong emails are best avoided.
If an email will elicit a reply that’s fairly short, you’re using the medium correctly. If your email brings out a long back-and-forth conversation, maybe you should use a chatroom or talk on the phone.
Phone-based text messages are best for short, inconsequential missives. Also good for small bits of info like “My train is late, will meet you at 12:30 instead of noon.” They’re terrible for anything long or in-depth.
I have a friend who likes to have long, drawn-out conversations in text messages. She has a smartphone, and my guess is that she has an optimized keyboard layout. (I do, on my Samsung tablet.) But, at the time, I didn’t have a phone with a querty keypad. Texting is great, but know your audience.
Email is a low-stress way to contact someone. You can reply when you have a spare moment, you can take your time over the words. But I make sure to get in at least one phone conversation with a new client if at all possible.
Our hesitations, how we pace our words–all these things say a lot about us. I can get a feel for someone that I can’t get over email. And conversations where you’re a little vague on what you want to say, where you need to have a freeform conversation to come up with ideas? Brainstorming like that works much better on the phone.
…and by “videoconferencing” I really mean “Skype”. I love using it for for overseas conversations or three-way conferences that are a bit of a pain to set up on a cell phone.
But Skype calls feel like I’m talking to someone who won’t look me in the eye–because they’re looking at my image on the screen, a few inches below the webcam lens. I imagine I look much the same to them, although I try to look at the webcam, seeing the person in my peripheral vision. (A good trick to combat that is to make the Skype window smaller and position it just below the webcam lens.) All this makes reading nonverbal cues difficult, but not impossible.
And the terrible sound quality of most video calls, with the sound gated and compressed, means we can’t be talking over each other. This enforced politeness robs the conversation of any kind of spontaneity. Phones have gotten audio quality to be much, much better than any video call I’ve ever been on.
Some people will put everything to one side for an email, others treat it as a queue to be answered when they get around to it. I’ve seen folks answer their phone while paying for groceries, but I’d let that go to voicemail unless I was in the midst of the direst of emergencies.
So choose your communications medium with care. Think about what you want to get done–exchange some information? Get to know someone? What you have to say is far more important than how you say it. Once you know what the message is, you can figure out the best way to get the it across.