I’m old. Really old. I’m so seasoned that it’s not uncommon for me to be in a meeting and mourn the thought that the newest tie in my closet is older than anyone seated around the table. But with age comes experience and the right to take time out to compare the frenzied business world of today with the world that I’ve navigated over the past 35 years. Much has changed, but one common theme prevails: Technology has forever changed the way we do business. Computers, communications and the Internet have achieved a level of sophistication, complexity and application completely unimaginable back in 1975, and the tsunami of technological innovation shows no sign of ebbing even today.
In fact, it seems for every new technological advance, another
10 or more "what if” shoots are spawned, and at each spawning, a technology-addicted public parades in lemming-worthy obedience to snatch up the latest, greatest gadget and to be rid of their now obsolete model, along with (of course) another $300. "But it’s worth it,” they say. "We must keep up! We must stay in touch!” They argue that the competition in their field is so ruthless and so cut-throat and so mercenary that the eventual business victor needs every—any—edge they can get to stay ahead. And that edge lies in technology … right?
When Life Gives You Lemmings
Well, yes … and no. As often happens in life, this "good” thing (rampant technological advance) carries with it hidden perils—trapdoors—that can make this sure thing not so sure. I believe it’s time to slow down just long enough to examine how much better off we really are as an increasingly technology-reliant society. In this article I’d like to focus on one aspect of the revolution—electronic communication—and further explore whether technology is allowing us to "talk” more … or driving us further apart. Let me set my premise:
1. Electronic communication (mostly e-mail/text) has taken over as the preferred and primary means of conveying business information back and forth (mostly considered a good thing).
2. Electronic communication is by its very nature one-dimensional, sterile and isolating (a bad thing).
3. There appears in today’s world to be a declining respect and vanishing grace for language and the meaning of words (a bad thing).
4. When 2 and 3 get together, it isn’t pretty (a really bad thing).
So it’s number four we’re worried about. Suffered individually, we could likely absorb and deflect numbers 2 or 3 but—when allied—a weak communication vehicle teaming up with fundamentally weak communicating spells trouble.
Perhaps the word itself is partly to blame. Over the past years, the definition of "communication” has taken a beating, and most of the pummeling has been brought on by the cyber revolution. By associating itself with an onslaught of computer buzzwords and features—and by becoming the new label for an action that often compromises, bastardizes and truncates our language into sound bites and snippets of 140 characters or less—"communication” has suffered in meaning.
Perhaps "message” is a better word—the kind of conveyance where two people thoroughly exchange thoughts and ideas in an unrestricted, understandable and mutual manner. But there’s no use muddying the waters, so to avoid confusion we’ll let "communication” stay for now—but with an asterisk firmly attached. OK, let’s begin by examining our first partner in crime: e-mail. (For the purposes of this article and for brevity’s sake, the word "e-mail” should be taken to include all popular forms of electronic communication—like e-mail, text, IM. Video networking (like Skype) is excluded because it does add the visual element—though the level/effectiveness of its ability to convey nonverbal cues is still being studied.)
Part I: e-zee Does It?
It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s convenient and when grouped with attachments, CCs, merges, address books and organizational acrobatics, e-mail has proven to be a reliable means of conveying vast amounts of information to a great many recipients, all in lightning speed. It’s also pretty much the only way business people communicate these days. As e-mail continually evolves, talking on the phone happens less and less … and as for snail mail … well, forget it. The post office and their privatized ilk have been relegated to overnight packages, certified letters and Hallmark® cards. At the same time, business travel has declined dramatically as cash-strapped firms cut back on expenses. All of these things leave us with less face-to-face, according to a great book out on the subject by Prof. Sherry Turkle entitled "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.”
But the attraction of e-mail isn’t just economy and speed. There’s personal privacy. Pause for a moment and consider how many of your co-workers and clients have implied or outright told you that they don’t want to be interrupted on the phone, that they would rather you "drop them an e-mail.” So whether it came as the cause or the effect, a communication void opened up along the way, and e-mail stepped in to fill the chasm.
Now here’s the part I was warning you about. I think there’s little argument that e-mail delivers on quantity. It’s only when we start analyzing the quality of e -mail—the actual communicating part—that things get a little fuzzy.
A little background: A popular and widely-circulated UCLA study by Professor Albert Mehrabian (you can find his book, "Nonverbal Communication” in libraries, book stores and online) concludes that when it comes to personal human communication, a whopping 93 percent has nothing to do with the words we use.
I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.
More Than Words
The study breaks it down even further. According to Mehrabian, 7 percent of all communication is the words we use, 38 percent is voice quality/tone (VQT) and the remaining 55 percent nonverbal communication (NVC). VQT includes qualities like pitch, tone, volume, inflection, rhythm and intensity—even the pace or rate with which you speak. NVC includes characteristics such as facial expression, gestures, eye contact, posture, touch, bearing, hand/feet movement, and even the way the other person approaches or walks around you.
Think about it. Have you ever been uncomfortable when someone stood too close to you as they spoke, invading your personal space? That’s nonverbal communication.
The human face is particularly expressive, able to express a myriad of emotion all without uttering a single word. It’s also unique in one remarkable aspect: regardless of your language or nationality, facial expression is universal. Unlike most other verbal and nonverbal communication (even gestures), facial expression denoting happiness, sadness, shock, fear or anger remains pretty much the same across all cultures. All NVC actions have their own meaning above and beyond mere words. The nonverbal signals we send and receive produce a sense of interest, trust and/or even a desire for connection. In turn, they can also transmit distrust, disgust or disinterest; even contradicting the words you are saying or hearing at the moment. Think of it as "listening with your eyes.”
Now granted, the percentages in Mehrabian’s study may seem a
little high (even I think so) but the lowest (combined VQT and NVC) I could find in my research was 55 percent. In the end, I’m not sure the true number is even that important, for no matter where it lands within that range, we are still left with the sobering knowledge that at any one time, less than half of what we are trying to say is through our words.
And that’s all e-mail is—words. E-mail/texting, by design, is incapable of conveying and relaying the crucial nuance and all of the necessary peripheral emotion required to close the communication deal. There’s no facial expressions, no body language—just words. We’re human—and with humans, the whole message can only be delivered in person.
It is also true that many of us don’t need a study to convince us of the value and validity of non-verbal communication. Simple observation is all one really needs. How many times have you wondered in an e-mail whether the author was being sincere or sarcastic? How many times was it difficult to judge just how upset the owner’s rep was over the latest misstep at the site? Have you ever wondered whether the writer was expecting an immediate response or just venting? Without voice quality/tone and nonverbal communication, you just can’t be sure.
Part II: The Decline and Fall of the Word
So now we know that even in our best electronic communication, we’re only half-communicating at best. That being the case, it only stands to reason that we’d better make the best possible use of the words we do have at our disposal. But did I mention there’s another problem? We’re not very good with words either. There are disturbing signs that as a society we are "dumbing down” when it comes to the use of language. In his book "The Closing of the American Mind,” Allan Bloom laments that "our students have lost the practice and taste for reading.”
Allan is not alone in his belief. For a long time there’s been a widely adopted concern that electronic media in the form of the Internet, reality television, inane sitcoms, videos, computer games and virtual reality are all combining to hijack the literal minds of our young people. The worry is that for every moment your child sits in front of the screen, another moment spent reading and writing—and learning our language—is lost.
The news gets worse, but it can’t all be pinned on the cyber revolution. In recent years, the average reading and writing mean scores of the Scholastic Aptitude Test have either stagnated or dropped in areas all over the country. Even scarier is that the College Board (http://professionals.collegeboard.com) reports that the critical reading portion of the SAT has dropped from 531 in 1972 to a dismal 503 in 2010—38 years of overall decline. Not good. Now add into the mix recent surveys indicating that of all adults who are capable of reading satisfactorily, only 7 to 12 percent read serious literature. Social analysts even have a word for it—aliteracy. It’s for people who can read … but don’t. So there it is: not only are we worse at reading/writing, but even when do possess the ability, we choose not to use it. Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well for the argument that we’re honing our word skills for better communicating.
Now to be fair, there are those out there who will argue the polar opposite: that the computer revolution has actually caused children to read and write more (what with e-mailing/texting/IM-ing). I hope that’s the case. All I can tell you is that it certainly isn’t what I’ve experienced.
Take daily life. How often in conversation do people use one word when they mean another? Or interject their speech with so much nebulous and general direction (you bosses out there should take special note) that no real meaning is gleaned by the listener? And of course, there are those all-to-common exchanges (not to stereotype, but I’m thinking the jobsite now) that slip to the lowest common denominator as one party or both pepper their speech with expletives in order to add emphasis to their message. All of these shortcomings and shortcuts inhibit our ability to convey our message. It’s like fixing a transmission with a spoon.
So do we need a call to arms? Well, nothing so alarming, but the very least we need to do when relying on electronic communication is to be more cognizant and more diligent in our use of language and expression, particularly when the visual channel doesn’t exist, such as with e-mail. We also need to remain aware that while using these vehicles, the most important part of communicating—the NVC and the VQT of the equation—is not at our disposal. Therefore, extra precaution and diligence must be taken to be more precise, more exacting and more selective in the words we do have at our disposal. Remember, this isn’t a matter of wanting to; we need to. In business, miscommunication means mistakes and mistakes kill profit. To make sure this doesn’t happen, we have to come to grips with the difference between "words” and "message” and comprehend the true power—and the stark limitations—of e-mail and text.
A Word about Words
Now yes, I understand that I’ve run the inherent risk (at my age) of sounding like the crotchety old widower yelling at the neighbor kids to stay off his lawn. But I also know that, as a businessperson and a writer I harbor a tremendous respect for the English language and the meaning of words. In business, I’ve seen too much miscommunication devour profit and as a writer I simply lament over what appears to be increasingly lazy vocabulary and a growing disrespect for language and form. Perhaps I’m just sensitive, but when I’m bombarded daily with a blitzkrieg of mind-numbing misspellings, misusage, inane emoticons, incomprehensible abbreviations and enough LOLs, ROTFLs and OMGs to burn the ends off every neural fiber in my brain … well, sometimes it’s enough to feel like the whole thing is caving in on us. (And by the way, it is conjectured that the use of these texting "additives” and other emotional symbols bears out the significance of—and need for—nonverbal signs within communication.)
But thankfully, I do have a weapon against this feeling. I simply remind myself that it wasn’t always like this. I remind myself of a time when words meant something, when language was art, and the written and spoken word was treasured as a gift. And I find small solace in knowing I’m not alone. In a scene from movie "National Treasure,” the main character reads aloud from the Declaration of Independence: "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government and provide new guards for their future security.”
He then turns to his partner and says, "They just don’t talk that way anymore … beautiful, huh?”
It sure was.
S. S. Saucerman has more than 30 years of experience in residential and commercial construction estimating, project management, building material sales and as a writer for construction industry. He also taught Building Construction Technology for 11 years at Rock Valley College, Rockford, Ill. And, the editor of this magazine thanks him for submitting this article in electronic format via e-mail.