You’re Not Gonna Reach My Telephone

The Gray Lady, bless her heart, has such a way with real-time anthropology.  Much as the academic literature in psychology is, out of necessity, a generalization from studies of the hearts and minds of undergraduates, the NYT has a gift for spotting the evolution of American norms and tastes through its authors’ careful observation of a few of their well-educated, cosmpolitan friends – sprinkled of course with references to a few boldface names and experts in implausibly narrow fields.  Were you aware, for example, that the unscheduled phone call, except in cases of emergency, is actively inconsiderate?

Now, I happen to sympathize with this sentiment.  I have some professional contacts who seem hard-wired to interact only by long phone calls throughout which I can actually feel my time being wasted; a bit like the queasy light-headedness that immediately follows a blood donation.  (I think this is partly generational and partly regional.  Where a New Yorker might pay me a call to “quickly catch up,” I’ve found that among contacts in Texas they’re more likely to call to “visit with [me]” – which is kind of a quaint and adorable way to put it.)  And my friends know that I’m unlikely to answer a phone call, even though I’m happy to turn around 80% of my e-mails and text messages just about as soon as I receive them.

I dislike the phone.  Sometimes the pace of conversations is awkward.  Sometimes I can’t hear what is being said, even after several repetitions.  Sometimes calls drop in the middle of an emotionally-rich line of discussion.  I’d prefer to have most meaningful interactions face-to-face, where I can give my undivided attention; or via chat where I can at least edit myself as I’m “speaking.”  For simple coordination, by contrast, I think e-mail and text messaging are usually more efficient.  I tend to agree with the Times that conversations with family are the main exception, but even then any variance from our usual patterns (a call in the middle of the day, for example) usually require the preface that it’s not an emergency.

I try to train my friends, and particularly my professional contacts, to call me sparingly.  The pattern goes something like: I ignore a phone call from X, a relatively unimportant professional contact with whom I interact on issues that are rarely a priority for me (these aren’t personal judgments; the people in question are lovely).  X calls me back several hours later, and I ignore it again.  X calls me back the next day, and I ignore it a third time.  X finally cracks and asks me the factual question that prompted his phone call via e-mail.  I respond instantaneously.  X calls me again immediately, thinking that he has outsmarted me and found a time when I am at my desk.  I ignore it and e-mail back that I am on the other line.  X replies that it’s ok, his call wasn’t important.  I resist the temptation to scream, if it wasn’t important, why in God’s name are you calling me??? I eventually call back, at my convenience, to shoot the breeze, and confirm that there was indeed nothing important to talk about.  It’s amazing, though, that no matter how many times I smack the dog on the nose with a newspaper, the pattern doesn’t change.

Perhaps the Times is overstating the extent to which people really believe in the case against the phone, but it’s a worthwhile prompt to be thoughtful about the channels we use for communication.  Good written communication provides a wonderful efficiency gain to the reader.  I can summarize two days of progress at work in a memo that may take me two hours to write, which can be digested by my manager in two minutes.  It’s scalable, too.  The Times is at its best when it is bringing its legions of readers up to date on developments as distilled by their journalists and editors.  By contrast, there is no time-efficiency gained in spoken communication.  What takes me five minutes to say takes you exactly five minutes to hear, and it’s likely that my spontaneous commentary will lack precision relative to whatever I could have written for your consumption in those same five minutes.  There are certainly benefits to real-time communication: it’s usually the easiest way to resolve misunderstandings, for example.  But for simple transmission of information, it is hard to outweigh the gains from ‘time compression’ afforded by the written word.

I find it infuriating when content that could have been delivered in a time-compressed format is not; and vice versa.  My orienation at my new employer, for example, required me to spend two hours listening to our earnest HR professional talk to me about content that could have taken me ten minutes to read.  Had I been sent the information in advance, I might have needed another five minutes in person to ask questions, and both she and I could have walked away a combined three and a half hours richer.   The mindless drive to generate “multimedia” content on the websites of organizations like the Times has spawned an even greater time-evil: the video interview.  Even if the content were interesting, there is no good reason not to provide the time-compressed format of a transcript as an alternative (here I must give a shout out to the McKinsey Quarterly for following this practice).  But, more damningly, one has little sense in advance for whether an interview is going to elicit interesting content or, more likely, produce a few banalities and talking points.

The ‘vice versa’ case is most obvious where attempts are made to reach decisions or forge consensus over e-mail, which induces all participants to spend hours reading and responding to issues that could have been resolved in a quick phone call or meeting.  But it also manifests in shoddy PowerPoint presentations that so butcher the subject matter in order to reduce it to bullet points that one is left feeling more confused than when one began.  When a time-compressed format produces insight-compressed content, that is generally not a good thing.

I’ve been thinking about better integrating my cell phone with Google Voice, which has the life-changing feature of transcribing voicemail and sparing the wasted minutes of dialing through voicemail menus just to find out if someone has left me an interesting message (that they should have e-mailed me instead!!).  I believe there’s a “Visual Voice Mail” feature on my phone that does this, too, but I object on principle to paying the small monthly fee for it.

I appreciate the irony that as my cell phone has become more of a fixture in my life, I’ve become less inclined to use it for, well, actually being a telephone.  But I think it’s exactly this ubiquity that makes it so important to be selective in who, when, and why we call.

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