Get Off Your Ass And Talk To Them

To preface: no, this is not dating advice.

One thing I’ve noticed during my time as an engineer is an over-reliance on technology to accomplish all communication ends.  By this, I mean that an engineer will sit at their desk and exchange a series of 20+ emails and instant messages to discuss a topic that could have been resolved with a two-minute face-to-face conversation.

Let me begin the discussion by saying that I am a text message fiend (as in, I send over 1000 a month).  I’m also a mild Facebook addict along with Twitter, email and various other social networking sites.  What can I say, I enjoy talking to a lot of people in a variety of ways.  There is nothing wrong with having some level of dependence on networking and communication tools; in fact, I wholeheartedly encourage people to reach out and communicate by any means at your disposal.  The unfortunate side-effect of our technology-driven society is that somehow, the longest-lasting time-honored and effective tool we have, has been largely forgotten: face-to-face communication.  Now, phone conversations also suffice for this to a large extent, but there is something about looking in someone’s eyes and watching how they elaborate on their topics with body language as well as voice inflection that merits a look at the physical proximity of communicating with others.

I recently moved across the country, from Reno, Nevada to Gainesville, Florida.  The move was not lightly taken, but was a huge next step in the life of my family.  This left us with nearly all of our good friends and direct family 3000 miles away.  We call our friends and family as often as we can, but to be honest, speaking with my mother and father is not the same on the phone as it was when we would go out to lunch and enjoy each other’s company for an hour.  By no means am I saying that you should take a different coworker out to lunch every day, but rather making the point that the phone simply is NOT the same as looking at someone while they talk to you.  I have also had many experiences where those 20+ emails went back and forth with no one really understanding what the other was trying to say, only for me to go physically stand in front of them and figure out that, in fact, we’re talking about the exact same problem and have more-or-less the same solution (obviously with some minor tweaks).  The language of an email wasn’t the right mechanism to see the nuances of the conversation, so while I thought my idea was being attacked, the other person was using different terms for their standpoint and feeling like I wasn’t listening.

A former coworker of mine was constantly reminded that his language and tone of his email was unacceptable.  Rather than adjusting his emails’ “tone”, he decided that it’d be easier to append a disclaimer to the end of his emails with rectification steps should his tone be considered inappropriate.  Needless to say, eventually this disclaimer disappeared because the problem was never solved by simply having it there in the email.  When you’d speak to him in person, you could see why people would see his tone as condescending and rude.  He freely spoke his mind and had some sarcasm throughout the conversations with him, however, none of it really was rude.  Back to the point at hand, the tone in his emails was the same, but without the lighthearted amusement that was included in his actual conversation, the essence of his discussions was lost and thought nasty.

Have you had an experience where a conversation through non-face-to-face means turned bad?  Or perhaps, clarified matters in a way that speaking directly to them couldn’t do?   I’m interested to hear!


  • Eric Saunders

    The only time IM is appropriate when that person is sitting right behind you, next to you, etc., is when they are IMing you a resource such as a link, network path, file, etc. Otherwise, take off your headphones and just speak up!

    • Christian Fey

      Love the email address Eric! 😉 I agree with your comment about when they actually are sitting within earshot. There really is no valid excuse UNLESS people around you get irritated when people speak. Not saying that it’s OK for anyone to get irritated when standard work-related discussions come into existence though. That’s more of a personal problem. Thanks!

  • Ahh to find that perfect balance…

    I find myself emailing and IM’ing a lot, but not because I don’t want to talk on the phone or in person. I would actually rather do that than write toneless emails. A lot of it has to do with protection reasons, ie. watching your butt, HR reason, etc.

    Unfortunately there have been plenty of instances where someone may say one thing in person or over the phone, and then later on deny or completely change a story – which could be deliberate or simply an incorrect memory. Sometimes the reason they do it and get away with it is because there is no proof of what was said before.

    Maybe the balance is to talk with others, and then write followup emails/documentation.

    • Christian Fey

      I like your thought G! You’re totally right about that. I’ve found that the people I work with and respect the most, are those who actually go to the meetings, provide insight and ideas, and then afterwards, go back to their desk and compose an email with everything that was discussed. Oftentimes, I find myself leaving the meeting and not really remembering everything they said, so when the email comes it’s like magic! All memory restored 🙂

      Thanks for reading! I hope Reno is well!