Better on Screen?

“We shape our building and then they shape us.” Sherry Turkle closes the intro to her book Alone Together with this Winston Churchill quote asking that consumers think about the impacts of technology and whether it serves “our human purposes” (19). With this approach in mind, let’s consider how technology reshapes our interactions.

What is the preferred medium for communication? Turkle spotlights the proliferation of emails as well as text and instant messages, and even uses the phrase “avoid the voice” (206) to address the decline in face-to-face and phone conversations. Before pointing at Gen Y speed texters, understand that the screen communication trend transcends generations. It also applies to interactions with family, friends, coworkers and customers.

Why Avoid the Voice?

Control

Screen communication allows you to receive, review and direct the conversation. It also permits walking away. A phone call requires someone to initiate a goodbye, which causes concern over hurt feelings. With messages, there is an assumption you are multitasking and therefore, not as much pressure to answer right away or continue a conversation.

Efficiency

Turkle discusses the bitterness of a brother who found out about his sister’s engagement via email. He’s saddened by the loss of an intimate moment. Acknowledging the limitations of a bi-coastal relationship, he asks why not at least a phone call. I ask why the phone is considered much better.

Efficiency can also refer to topics covered. Interviewee Deval explains, “texting is more direct. You don’t have to use conversation filler” (201).  Keep in mind, eliminating conversation filler doesn’t necessarily translate to saving time. Hours of back and forth text messaging could easily equal a half hour phone call.

Courtesy

Some send messages because it’s easier for them, but also because they believe it is easier for the recipient. Now phone calls or in-person exchanges are reserved for special occasions. Otherwise, you’re intruding upon someone’s life.

What’s the Cultural Impact?

OK, have we stopped to consider the repercussions or whether messaging supports our values? I’d say messaging serves its core purpose – keeping people in contact. However, we are sacrificing an authentic connection for interaction with a screen and that is not always acceptable. For example, the email wedding announcement referenced above. So who is determining this etiquette and how do we ensure we voice when we’re supposed to?

As a writer, I joke that I am better on paper – or in a digital world, on screen.  My job requires generating content, quick turnaround and constant interactions with associates outside of my office. This adds up to me being glued to email. Early in my career, I assumed that everyone shared this addiction and appreciated my efforts to be direct and courteous.

As I grow in my role and company, I’ve noticed I’m making more phone calls and dropping by desks. Some of this may be a developing confidence in my purpose, but I’ve also witnessed the tension resulting from a misinterpreted email. And while you may say feelings aside, it’s efficient… misguided email strings can become very lengthy.

If you’re focused on saving time, I would point out how forming relationships (through pleasantries and voice connection) with your coworkers can speed results. Understanding that these are people with feelings, thoughts of “I don’t have time for you” or “I don’t care”, can occur in the workplace and sour relationships. As an associate at a company that specializes in customer service, that is the last impression I want to leave on a coworker or worse, a customer.

All that said – I do stick to email to minimize risk in certain scenarios. Serving as the voice of a company requires a level of accuracy and perfection that can be a daunting task. Keeping it in writing ensures that I am always presenting my company in a positive and purposeful manner. However I wonder how a push to email impacts company perception for those pushed to email.

Putting on my ‘mindful consumer’ hat, does foregoing the voice for a message reflect our values and serve our purposes? Yes, if it is used correctly. This reminds me of a conversation in my New Media Studies Proseminar class where we discussed the difference between teaching students how to operate technology and how to use it. So far, my training manuals demonstrate how to send an email, dial direct to voicemail and send an instant message, but it does not specify when to use each in order to achieve my goals – collecting information and/or maintaining a relationship.

Perhaps these etiquette conversations will need to occur in professional, and private, settings to ensure we aren’t damaging relationships and inadvertently wasting time. Have you had these conversations?

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