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Does Communication Technology Interfere With Communication?

by Helen Wilkie

Yes, the gadgets we use to stay in touch with each other are becoming increasingly sophisticated, but the cost is not only financial...

"You have reached The Acme Company automated switchboard. You now have three choices...

"If you know the extension number of the person you wish to reach, please dial it now. If you wish our employee directory, press 1..." and on and on ad infinitum.

Sound familiar? If my fellow Scot, Alexander Graham Bell, had known this was going to happen, he might have thought twice about inventing the telephone in the first place.

Like many other innovations since then, the telephone was invented as a way of improving communication. The same is true of e-mail, voicemail, teleconferencing, even the Internet itself. But do they truly help us connect with one another more effectively?

As part of my research for a new book, I am currently interviewing CEOs of a variety of organizations. Recently, the president of a major technology company told me she was perturbed to note people who sat beside each other, separated only by a room divider, communicating with each other by e-mail instead of in person.

Happy to find a senior executive who shared my concern over these trends, I asked her why that worried her. She had 2 reasons.

First, while e-mail can be a quick and efficient way of transferring information, it does not convincingly convey a person's tone or feelings. Simply stating facts in the often terse e-mail style can lead to misunderstanding and ill feelings. Second, using e-mail instead of walking around a corner for a quick personal conversation is a step down a slippery slope to the point where we can avoid any interpersonal relationships on the job at all—a somewhat Orwellian prospect.

A number of business acquaintances have noticed that when they arrive at the office in the morning, they typically have a line-up of voicemail messages awaiting their attention, many of which were obviously left after office hours the night before.

It seems clear to me that many of these callers choose to call outside office hours for one reason—they don't want to reach a live human being. They want to leave their side of the "communication" without have to contend with the other person's response.

Add to this the growing use of "Call Display", that fiendish invention of the telephone companies that announces the caller's name before the call is answered, and the telephone becomes a barbed wire fence we can erect to keep anyone from communicating with us in person at all. Now that's progress for you, Mr. Bell!

There's no denying the value of setting up a teleconference to let people in farflung locations hold a meeting, thus avoiding high travel costs. However, I see the practice spreading so that very soon, face-to-face meetings will be the exception.

That's a pity, because there are some situations in which a face-to-face, across-the-table discussion is the only way to settle issues with no room for misunderstanding or later dispute.

Certainly, ineffective meetings waste a great deal of time and money, but teleconferences are not, by definition, any better run than the traditional meeting. The problem here is the people, not the vehicle.

Recent surveys show that young people in high school are more and more likely to be overweight and unfit, due to the amount of time they spend in the front of their computers, playing videogames and surfing the Net.

I believe physical deterioration is only part of the problem. I foresee a generation of people whose social skills are non-existent, and who will be hard pressed to become part of any kind of project team or functional group in business.

Even worse, what kind of family relationships will we be looking at in the future? Will someone invent some diabolical instrument for "communication" over the dinner table, where we each have our own keypad to ask, "Pass the salt, please?"

We need to keep a close eye on where communication technology is taking us.

Helen Wilkie is a professional speaker and author, specializing in communication that improves the bottom line. She can be reached at 416-966-5023 or hwilkie@mhwcom.com.

 

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Monday, 18 Dec 2017 05:47 AM

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