Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Can't We Just Talk?

Communications. You hear it a lot in the news, by psychiatrists, authors and consultants, about the best way to get people to work together and how communication is a perennial issue.

As my wife and I approach our 25th wedding anniversary in July, I can attest to the value of good communication. This, of course, we learned through years of both good and bad communication.

Technology has created many ways for us to communicate with each other. I'll stick with the one-on-one communications as opposed to mass communications, such as books, television and radio.

One-on-one communications started as face-to-face communications and I'll talk about that later.

Distance and other factors mean that we can't always communicate face-to-face. So early on, letters and mail service replaced the face-to-face communications. At one time, writing letters was an art form, and to read the many personal communications that went back and forth between people years ago, it's easy to see why they can be so highly valued.

Later on, we had the telegraph, which kinda, sorta, replaced the letter. The telegraph was more of the texting version of writing letters — short and to the point ... just the facts, ma'am.

The telephone came along and let people interact with each other live. It enabled them to hear the various voice nuances, to share a laugh, and gave them the ability to detect sarcasm, humor and other subtle changes in tone and delivery that can convey far more than the written word. And, when calling "long distance" meant speaking quickly because of the per-minute charges, even so, each message was precious when speaking with a parent, grandparent, or friend.

Eventually e-mails came along and, it seems, they have all but eliminated the personal letter. Interestingly enough, now I find that a personal note or letter sent via mail has far more value than it used to. With most people now having access to a computer, an e-mail account and spending more and more time online, it's pretty easy to zip off an e-mail to anyone, anywhere in the world, in a moment's notice.

As with any written communication, though, it lacks the ability to communicate nuances. Hence, we've developed emoticons, such as ;-) to denote a snicker; and :-( to denote sadness; and there are many others — better than nothing at all, but still a far cry from being a good way to communicate.

The advent of texting is perhaps the worst form of communication ever. While texting can be good for truly communicating just the facts, it's rife with errors in spelling, grammar and substance. Oh, and let's not forget the new acronyms, like ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing).

Another tool that's been around for a while is video-conferencing. While typically reserved for large corporations with big budgets, high-speed Internet service has enabled anyone with a personal computer and a webcam to make use of video conference as a means of communication. This has been a boon to parents who are traveling and want to say goodnight to their kids, or tech-savvy grandparents who want to see their grandchildren frequently.

Not to be outdone, a handful of companies still occupy the high-end video-conferencing space with a technology called "telepresence," which delivers high-definition video to those who can afford it.

But none of these are a substitute for in-person, face-to-face, press-the-flesh, solid communications with others. In a time when travel budgets — both personal and corporate — are restricted due to cost savings pressures, sometimes the need to meet someone in person is even greater.

In many instances, I've had a business or personal relationship that has been good, but for which we've not met in person. While these relationships have been good, they have been remarkably better after a face-to-face meeting and typically a meal or two together.

So, for me, all of the forms of communication available today simply serve as a backup for when I can't be with someone in person. After all, we are human and no technology can replace that.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 23 June 2010.

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