24 January 2012
The nature of electronic communications
Electronic communication has changed human interaction in some very obvious ways - email seems to take the best of mail and phone calls and merge them into one, for example. However, with the increased ease in communication, we're communicating a lot more, both in terms of number of messages passed and the patterns of these messages. In times gone by (before I entered the workforce), your main source of message from outside your team was the office post trolley.
Once or twice a day, your messages would be delivered, and you would dedicate a chunk of time to prioritising, reading and replying. But now those messages appear in your inboxes throughout the day, interrupting what we're doing and making us feel guilty if we don't reply immediately.
The result is that we train ourselves to deal with communication quickly, and we devote little concentration to each individual message.
In the corporate world, there's a working rule: if you need the answer to a question, make it the only question in an email. All the evidence shows that people read emails up until the first actionable point and deal with that -- your first question should always get answered, but your second probably won't. We still talk about the positivity/negativity sandwich -- that old idea of putting the negative feedback between two positive things, so that it doesn't demoralise or antagonise the recipient unnecesarily.
But the observations from email are clear: the first part of the message is the only thing the recipient is guaranteed to read, so we have to go straight to the negative.
The problem here, though, is the terminology. In a performance review, "positive" is good and "negative" is bad. That's fine. But outside of a formally structured environment, "positive" really means "agreement" and "negative" means "disagreement".
If you look at web forums, you'll find that you can categorise many of them into two categories: "friendly" and "robust debate". Even if the forum in particular can't be categorised this way, the users will be split across the two camps.
One of the characteristics of the "friendly" camp is the positive/negative sandwich. Everyone prides themselves on supporting people, even when they disagree with them. But look a little closer and you'll see that everyone starts missing the disagreements, because they're hidden in the middle of the message. With everyone discussing why they agree, there's no scope to resolve the disagreements -- the disagreements aren't even recognised. The two or more parties leave the discussion with exactly the same views as they entered it.
The "robust debate" camp eschews the politesse and goes straight to the disagreements. You get genuine debate and you come out of it changed -- even if your personal opinion remains the same, you have a much clearer idea of the questions involved. It's really only once you have these questions in your head that you can start to notice that sometimes your wrong.
And that's why I'll always be in the "robust debate" camp. There's been plenty of debates which I've left convinced I'm right, but months or even years later, it has dawned on me that I'm wrong. Knowledge isn't just about what you believe to be true, you need to know about what you believe to be false, or you will never be able to honestly evaluate your beliefs.
So if I seem short with you on your blog or forum, it's not an attack on you or anyone else, it's because I want to expand my knowledge. It shows I've got a genuine interest in what you're trying to say.
And if I'm nice to you online, feel free to feel patronised.