Words and life lose face value

August 02, 1999|By Amy Gage | Amy Gage,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Lately I've noticed a lower form of communication that negates some of the convenience of technology. People who owe me a call but who don't want to reach me -- either because they're busy or embarrassed by what they have to say -- leave a voice mail message when they're pretty sure I won't be at the office.

Like at 6 in the morning or 8 at night.

John Gisler calls that "drive-by" voice mail, a deliberate effort to avoid direct contact or conflict. "I work hard to keep communication in person and candid, especially that of a somewhat critical nature," says Gisler, president of Twin City Co-Ops Federal Credit Union.

Technology saves all of us time. That we can research any topic on the Internet, send group e-mail messages instantly, at any time, has increased the pace of business and, some argue, denuded our personal lives. We are losing the grace of the handwritten note, the warmth of sharing a cup of coffee and a chat, the courage required to deliver a tough message face to face.

Technology makes us more reachable yet more alone. I'm in touch with a dozen different people every day, but how many of them do I really know?

"These technologies enable avoidance," says Peter Crabb, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies the effect of technology on human behavior. "I see it among students. Some are terrified of just walking up and talking to the professor, so I get e-mail messages from them. I think technology makes shyness or social anxiety worse."

But many busy people swear by it. E-mail and voice mail are handy ways to send information that doesn't require a response. Technology enables many people to work from home. If used with discretion, it can help us control our time.

"I love e-mail. It's not entrapping, but freeing," says Brian Karlsson-Barnes, who runs a business in Northfield, Minn., called the Harmony Gardener, and also works a retail job. "I hate the phone. It's intrusive. It demands attention, and I often put off returning calls. I can send or receive e-mail whenever I feel like it."

The trick is to stay afloat in a sea of messages. Russ Sinkler used to get 120 voice messages a day as a corporate manager of people in 26 cities. Now as owner of a consulting business, he tries to avoid the trap of staying so connected -- so immersed in daily details -- that he loses track of larger goals.

Some tips from people whom I e-mailed for this article (yes, it was quicker than playing phone tag):

Check voice mail and e-mail only at certain times each day. Set aside evenings when your answering machine takes calls. Don't feel obliged to respond to every e-mail. Tell people to take you off their jokes list.

"The only downside I've encountered with e-mail is the amount of garbage I get from friends and colleagues," says Marty Harding, a consultant on welfare-to-work issues. "It is often of the sentimental, sappy, quasi-religious nature. This genre is usually accompanied by a demand to 'send this on to 10 other people.' "

Technology has created a sense of urgency in our culture that often goes unacknowledged and unaddressed. Who says you have to respond to e-mail right away? Where is it written that a phone message must be returned within the hour? Conversely, why is an e-mailed "thank you" note less valid than one sent through the U.S. Postal Service?

Companies can boost efficiency and collegiality if they establish norms for using technology, says Ron Rice, a professor at Rutgers University who has studied communications patterns in organizations with new technologies.

Xerox encourages employees to use e-mail for social interaction. Many employers, including mine, forbid it. But how do you know, unless your boss tells you the rules?

Rice often sees students balk when he ignores his ringing telephone while meeting with them in his office. "There's this social pressure to answer the phone," he says. "But new media come along -- voice mail, videoconferencing -- and the norms have to be renegotiated. How fast do I have to return a call? How much information do I have to give you? Which medium do I have to return it by?"

Those questions are harder to answer outside the four walls of a company, where standards can't be consistently applied. Some of the 55 people I e-mailed for this article sent their answers to everyone, much to other people's annoyance. Others complained of being misunderstood on e-mail because it doesn't allow for voice inflection, facial expression, gestures.

People also tend to write and send e-mail quickly, forgetting the power of the written word. "I often schedule live, over-the-phone sessions for sensitive subjects," says psychologist Joe Bailey, author of "The Speed Trap."

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