The Message

When people don’t respond to emails or phone messages, I assume they have a reason for avoiding me. I’m very lucky that most of my co-workers and associates are very good at returning messages–of any sort–in a timely fashion. But some of my friends don’t even look at their email for weeks, even for work-related stuff. Others don’t think that returning a phone call is all that important. When we can see who a phone call is coming from, it’s easy to make the decision to send it to voicemail.

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.

Email

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.

Text Messages

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.

The Phone

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.

Videoconferencing

…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.

Priorities

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.


Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a sample edit. He’s fascinated by places where language and music intersect, and he writes music and lyrics as often as possible. He’s also in the studio with his band Baroque & Hungry.
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3 thoughts on “The Message

    • That’s why I dislike video conferencing so much: It creates the illusion of a face-to-face conversation while robbing the experience of the ability to read body language, to read a facial expression. I’d rather see someone in person, but it’s not always practical.

      And in the good old days, we wrote letters when we couldn’t talk face to face. But, Fransi, in the good old days, you and I would never have met! So, please don’t take this article as a hate-on for the plethora of technological choices we have for communication. I feel like George Jetson when I use Skype! (Now, if you’ll excuse me, my button-pushing finger is aching this afternoon.)

      • I don’t think you have a hate-on at all. There is a time and place for everything. And I’m very happy technology made it possible for us to meet each other. What drives me nuts are people who hide behind voice and email and rarely, if ever, respond.

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