For the first time in human history, two-thirds of our daily work communication and a growing amount of our interpersonal and social communication is being done in writing. Texts, e-mails, and collaboration tools are asynchronous and ubiquitous. How you respond to this probably depends on how old you are. Is this good news, since electronic text can cover time, space and dimension? Or is it a sign of the apocalypse, with nonverbal communication ruining how we interact and build relationships?
The answer is both, probably. Or neither.
This isn’t really a new development
First, a non- judgmental statement of fact. In the 30-40 years that email has been in the workplace, the amount of workplace communication done in writing (email, SMS text, instant messaging) has replaced the amount of face to face communication in most knowledge-worker (used to be called white collar but nobody wears white button-down shirts at work anymore) jobs. The COVID work-from-home diaspora has only expanded this trend that was going on anyway.
I was on a panel discussion recently with three young entrepreneur/CEOs and was bemoaning this fact. Basically, all three of them told me that for anyone under 40, texting has become the default form of communication and maybe I’m just too old to realize it. One even said, “We don’t rely on verbal and in-person communication to get things done, unlike the previous generation.”
It’s still a pretty big deal, though
First, you insolent young puppy, it’s not the previous generation. It’s generations. Like, all of them. Since the dawn of time. This is the first time in human history that this amount of communication has been done in writing. Whether that’s good or bad, it is a fact. What it means is open to interpretation, but here are some interesting facts about how work gets done today.
- It’s not just whether we communicate in person or not, it’s the tools we choose. 91% of adults 60 and over prefer email for written communication, and it drops by age group until we see only 16% of those 18-24 who prefer to use email over other methods in the workplace. In personal communication the numbers drop even lower. (McKinsey research)
- Texting, on the other hand, works the other way around. The average 18-24 year-old receives or sends 110 text messages per day, while those of us over 60 send or receive about 5 texts a day.
- The average email has gotten shorter over this same time frame. Originally emails were letters that got sent really fast, and followed the traditional rules for business communication. Thirty years ago, most emails were 200-300 words long. Today they average 60-70.
- The average text message is 7 words.
- Emojis first appeared in online message boards as “emoticons”- smiley faces and the like typed into text to add richness and context (and to let people know you were kidding, or happy). The first emoji, the smiley face, appeared on Japanese cell phones in 1997. Currently one out of every 5 text messages contains an emoji.
- The eggplant emoji is not used to talk about eggplant. Just so you know. Lesson learned. Don’t ask.
What does all this mean?
None of these facts in and of themselves is good or bad news. Like all data, it is simply information. It does raise several important questions, though.
Are older workers (and the organizations they run) missing out on ways to collaborate and communicate more effectively through technology?
Does the fact that younger workers prefer to communicate in writing (and shorter and shorter messages all the time) mean it is the most effective means of communication?
There is a paradox at work here. The desire for face-to-face communication can often result in too many meetings and an interruption in productivity. Yet, relying on fast, short, written communication can undermine relationships and create misunderstandings that could have been avoided. (If you’ve ever witnessed teenage texting drama, you know it’s true. Adult work is more like junior high school than we’d like to admit.)
As with so much in life, it’s not that one side is wrong and the other is right. Written communication isn’t evil, and actually talking to someone may shorten the time to a solution or clear up misunderstandings but can also slow things down.
We need to be intentional about which tools we use under which circumstances. So, yeah, we old guys have to get with the times. The young’ns though, might want to slow down and think about whether a 20-text thread is the right way to solve a problem.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.