There is a school of thought that communicating with others by email or SMS (text messaging) is a good thing, because it encourages some people – especially those who are shy or introverted – to communicate more readily and in a less inhibited way, than they would be inclined to do in a one-to-one situation face-to-face. A contrasting view is that whilst there might be some truth in that, the major disadvantage is that the consequent lack of direct personal contact hinders the development of interpersonal skills. It is also less likely that two individuals communicating entirely “electronically” would develop a close and/or meaningful relationship. This essay considers and discusses those views and the issues arising.
There is no doubt that emailing or texting is not only fast, and “free”, but allows you to communicate without leaving the comfort of your chair. For many purposes, the email as a communication medium is just about ideal. For example, if you get a message from your Bank or a lawyer stating that they need a copy of your ID, or your passport, or some other document, it’s so easy to scan the document and attach it to an email in not much more time than it takes to type these words. And the document is received almost instantaneously, too. Similarly, if you need to let someone know your flight details so you can be met at the airport, the email or text is again ideal for that purpose. In other words, using that medium is a good solution for non-contentious messages where time may be of the essence in imparting the information.
However, it is also only too easy to dash off an email or a text (or send a Twitter or Facebook message) without giving the content sufficient thought before pressing the “Send” button. How many people in public life (politicians, movie stars, sports personalities, etc.) have found themselves in deep trouble because of messages compiled and sent on the spur of the moment? And – in this writer’s opinion at least – such people really should know better. In fact, it would not be a bad idea if the employment contracts for such people were to expressly forbid using those media for any messages connected with their professional activities (thereby protecting them from themselves!).
There is no doubt that in today’s society far fewer “real” letters are written (or typed), placed in an envelope and mailed, particularly in non-business correspondence. Communicating using that method is undoubtedly slower than emails or instant messaging, but does have the advantage over emails and texts in that the sender is more likely to re-read the contents before sending, affording the sender the opportunity to think again or to correct wording that might be misinterpreted. Also emails or texts – especially texts – use a very concise form of words, which greatly increases the likelihood of misunderstandings arising.
It is the speed of electronic communication that makes it so attractive. The telephone is just as fast of course, and offers a major advantage over emails and texts that it is “real time” two-way communication. Though it’s not as good as face-to-face, because – as the name suggests – face-to-face conversation allows both parties involved to observe the other person’s facial expressions which can communicate almost as much as the words themselves.
An example of the differences between these methods of communication might be if person A says “I’m thinking of coming to visit you for a few days” in a text or an email, person B’s immediate reaction is completely invisible to person A. That could be an advantage in the sense that it gives person B the opportunity to think of ways to avoid, postpone, or prevent that visit, but has the disadvantage for person A that they might not realise their planned visit is quite simply unwelcome.
Considering the same scenario but in a telephone conversation, person A might deduce from a hesitation on person B’s part that maybe the idea of a visit has not been well received. However, in a face-to-face encounter, unless person B happened to be very good at hiding their true feelings, the facial expression would tell person A that they might have to think again.
There is also the fact that whereas in many instances one might be prepared to make harsh demands or stipulate rigid or unbending requirements on another person or business in an email, there is much more likely to be increased flexibility “on the table” when discussing matters face-to-face. It is basic human nature that when dealing face-to-face with someone, there is a tendency on both sides to be more tolerant, more understanding of the other person’s position and an instinctive wish to be seen as a more reasonable person.
Another great advantage of face-to-face communication – in a positive sense – is in developing a romantic relationship. Many, many relationships begin with an exchange of glances, often between two people who would never have met if they had not by chance been in the same place at the same time. Yes, people do also successfully establish relationships that begin online (dating agencies, etc) but that can be a lengthy and costly process with many setbacks and false starts before finding a compatible significant other.
And it’s not only romantic relationships that are best achieved and most likely to succeed by face-to-face contact and communication. In many spheres of commercial activity, getting to know your customer is crucial in building trust, and from that a successful long term business relationship. Meeting your customers face-to-face dramatically increases the chances of such a relationship developing and enduring. How many times do you hear the expression “It’s not what you know, but who you know that matters.” Essentially, the meaning of that expression is that interpersonal relationships are all-important.
It is evident that the best way to develop interpersonal skills is by regular and frequent social contact. Individuals who work in a customer-facing role in an office or retail environment are much more likely to have good interpersonal skills than (say) someone who lives alone and works in a job that is conducted entirely or predominantly online; i.e. never actually meeting or conversing with their counterparts or customers. In these times when the Internet has “shrunk” our world, online relationships can and often are conducted not just across national borders but between different continents and time zones. In many cases, real time direct contact – even using electronic communication methods – is not practicable due to time differences. As a consequence, solid and lasting relationships between supplier and customer are less likely when the communication medium is purely online.
Electronic communication (email, text messaging including social media) is of huge benefit in today’s technology-oriented society. However, whilst that technology offers tremendous benefits in terms of ease and speed of communication, it has its drawbacks and disadvantages too. It is ideal for rapid, cost-effective transmittal of non-contentious content and documents needed urgently such as verification of ID, etc. It may well be of benefit to shy or introverted individuals who would be more inhibited in a face-to-face situation, but does not as a consequence help such people with interpersonal skills or the establishment and development of meaningful relationships – either in a business or personal sense. Overall, it is very much a case of “horses for courses.” Electronic communication has – rightly – its place in today’s society, but is no substitute for face-to-face contact where that form of communication is the best method. Shy or introverted people may communicate easier and/or better using email or text, but may well suffer in a lack of social skills as a result.