Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Thoughts on forms of communication

Introduction

Over time, I have come to realize that I, despite being highly introverted, do not actually dislike communication. I set out to write a brief piece on introversion and communication, but got somewhat side-tracked with a comparison of real time (RT) and non-RT communication. The below is the result. A split into several expanded articles on the individual topics is likely a better solution, and may follow at a later stage—in particular, as the individual entries are a bit thin.

Various mentalities and various forms of communications

Despite being highly introverted by any typical definition, I spend a lot of time (voluntarily) communicating. This website is a very good example. This may seem paradoxical at first, but can be explained with a closer look. A key insight is that I am less interested in bonding than others are, that I have many interest that bring me more entertainment than people, etc.; but that I enjoy exchanging information, gaining new insights, spreading my own insights to others, and similar. Largely, but possibly not exclusively for this reason, I have a preference for asynchronous, non-RT communication; and some amount of disdain for the opposite, but not for communication in general. Unfortunately, most others are the other way around, which can incorrectly create the impression that they are highly communicative and I am not. (However, it would be true to say, e.g., that I am less gregarious.)

I suspect that the same applies to many other introverts, and that it may be wise not confuse social interactions and communications with other forms of communication.

Notably, I read several accounts of autists and people with social phobias who have similar issues—with the crucial difference that they do not merely prefer non-RT communication, but actually have problems handling RT at all. (E.g. because they become to nervous, think deeply rather than quickly, have problems with processing inputs sufficiently fast, or similar.)

RT vs. non-RT

All communication forms have advantages and disadvantages, and no one form is always better than all others; however, for a clear majority of all cases involving the exchange of facts or reasoning, planning, providing alternatives, discussing whose money goes where in exchange for what, ..., written non-RT communication is superior to oral RT communication. In contrast, for chit-chat or flirting at the water-cooler, the situation is very different. Obviously, discretion should be used, in either direction: Insisting on an email with a two-line answer from someone who happens to be two feet away is rarely appropriate (exceptions include e.g. when a need for confirmation in writing is needed); calling a loved one on the other side of the earth in the middle of his night sleep is equally inappropriate.

Here I focus on the former situations.


Side-note:

I recommend everyone to try to keep as much as possible of business dealings in writing; in particular, when dealing with corporations and government agencies as an individual consumer/citizen. Not doing so can have severe negative effects. In my own experience, corporations are very prone to promise corrections of errors, re-payments of too large direct debits, etc., on the telephone, only to later decline fulfilling the “alleged” promise due to lack of written evidence. Civil servants, OTOH, tend to be highly un- and misinformed themselves, and can lead an honest citizen into missing deadlines, not deducting enough on his taxes, etc.

In my further experience, the less trustworthy an organisation has proved it self, the more prone it is to try to divert attempts at written information into telephone calls. Such attempts, in and by themselves, should be seen as warning signals.


Advantages of non-RT

Consider email (other forms are typically similar, but great variations can occur):

  1. Messages of higher quality are produced.

  2. Both the sender and the receiver have time to think things through, and do not need to go by their first impulse. Notably, first impulses are often incorrect, with at least two side-effects: Firstly, the receiver can get incorrect information and/or an incorrect view of the senders opinions. Secondly, humans tend to stick to what they have once claimed, even if it turns out to be faulty (partially through cognitive dissonance, partially through a fear of losing face).

  3. Similarly, there is time to check facts and details.

  4. A written trail exists, which is beneficial for at least four reasons: Firstly, promises and claims made can be verified later (although many people of poor ethical standards may view this as a disadvantage...). Secondly, memory lapses (which are extremely common after spoken communication) can be filled in by going back to the email. Thirdly, the communications can be re-used and re-distributed much easier. Fourthly, people are more likely to focus on quality over quantity, avoid deceptions, etc., when something written exists.

  5. If the recipient is not present at the time of communication, he can simply catch up later. In particular, there is no need to explicitly schedule a meeting, compare agendas, or similar.

Advantages of RT

Arguments for RT seem to be:


Side-note:

Speaking in person or, as a substitute, over telephone is the most common form of RT communication; however, other forms exist (at least “chatting” has to be added). Typically, the below always applies to communication in person, but may or may not apply to other forms of RT communication.


  1. RT makes it easier to avoid misunderstandings: Completely false, except as in the next item.

  2. Non-RT communication suffers from the lack of body language, mimic, etc.: Partially true; however, nothing that cannot be compensated for by clear writing and reading, and a deliberate suppression of the dangerous impulse to read in meanings that are not explicitly stated. In fact, this impulse can be sufficiently problematic to outweigh the advantages of body language: Most people are not sufficiently aware that others may use a different body language, and that body language must be compared to the base level of the specific individual (e.g. when judging whether presence/absence of a smile is an indication of personal liking/aversion or a good/bad mood).

  3. Communication in person is faster: This is sometimes true; sometimes false. Definitely, the noise-to-information ratio is much higher when compared to e.g. communication in writing, eliminating much of the gain even in a best case scenario. Great losses of time can also occur, because the exact data that is needed to successfully complete an interaction is not known ahead of time, and strings of “I have to get back to you on that one.” are quite common.

    I note that with email few speed problems exist when the involved parties think things through, read and write properly, and do not try to skirt their responsibilities—most notably do not refuse to give a two-line answer to a particular question by insisting that a completely unnecessary phone call is made.

I strongly suspect that the true reasons for support of RT communication are increased possibilities to manipulate the counter-part, bond with others, and a greater entertainment value—possibly even that it makes a good excuse for not actually working... Obviously, a naive view on what is more and less efficient and effective also plays in.

Notably, poor typists are particularly prone to dislike written communication. While a preference for talking over typing is understandable for people in this category, the better solution (at least in the office) is to make sure that they improve their typing skills—which is not going to happen if they keep ducking situations that require typing. (Cf. my discussion of touch-typing.)


Side-note:

Email communication has one Achilles’ heal: Many irresponsible office workers ignore emails until someone comes around in person to push an issue along. However, this weakness is not inherent to emails, and should not be attacked by avoiding emails—instead company policies should put pressure on the irresponsible individuals to do their job in a more responsible manner.