Are we losing the art of conversation?

When companies such as JPMorgan Chase, Coca-Cola and Citigroup ask employees if they want to keep their voicemail function and up to 95% say ‘no’, you know there is something afoot.

While this presents a cost-cutting opportunity for companies by doing away with unloved systems, why are people shunning the spoken word?

The answer is simple: written messaging – emails and digital messages, using Google, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, Slack, Skype, Trello, and the list grows.

Combined, in 2016 Facebook messenger and WhatsApp produced around 60 billion messages per day, and text messaging 20 billion. Simply, we’re now more inclined to fire off a message than to talk on the phone. It’s quick, less intrusive, requires less commitment and can provide the time and space to have greater control over interactions.

Yet these are not strictly positive qualities. It doesn’t automatically mean more efficiency; it certainly doesn’t always translate into clarity of communication and neither does it necessarily contribute to maintaining good relationships.

As with the many advancements we’re embracing and struggling with today, balancing the positives and negatives is an ongoing process of learning and discovery, and one not without its hiccups.

“It is easy to misinterpret communication if it is received by text or email,” says Robert Walling-Wefelmeyer, an associate at EY London. “I have imagined meanings behind messages from friends that didn’t exist, leading to frustration and argument. Communication in person removes this barrier.”

“We say ‘people buy people first’ and ‘I like to see the whites of their eyes’,” says Laurie Bernard, founder of consultants The Business Services Partnership. “Communication is much more than just the words. It’s the way we say them, it’s the body language and signals we give off. So by purely using electronic chatter we’re missing so much. People can easily misinterpret your message. Perhaps considering you are lazy or not interested.”

Yet the increase in texting isn’t all bad, Walling-Wefelmeyer argues. “I have become more concise when explaining concepts in person; a result of using emails in a professional setting. In a perfect world, we would use text and emails to communicate factual updates, while saving face-to-face communication for meaningful matters. However, in a world where speed is ever-more important, we may well continue shortening our messages until any life in them is removed.”

Which, given that employers are forever worrying about a skills shortage that includes interpersonal, intercultural and stakeholder communication skills, and with the upsurge in robotics and automation across business, surely the loss of ‘life’ from our correspondences is a bad thing.

Yet considering that the technology revolution is essential to global business, the likelihood is for multiplying and ever-shorter communiques, but it can still be an optimistic situation with new ways of working that require continuous refining. “Sending numerous emails can stunt efficiencies, with the recipient sifting through mounds of unnecessary information. However, if this is used in the right context and correctly utilising the ‘cc’ function, the desired message and hence required outcome, can be achieved significantly quicker than a face-to-face conversation,” says Sam Leach, an assistant manager at EY London.

Getting the right mix of communication tools and knowing how and when to use them is key to avoiding their stultifying qualities. So too is why you’re using them – viewing them as useful for achieving a desired outcome and integrating them in the best way possible to achieve your goals.

“’Client facing’ is the phrase often used to sell our services within the financial industry,” says Leach’s colleague Eloise Brian, an associate at EY London. “Sure, we can hide behind messages, chats and email; however, I believe these are just tools to make our conversation more opportunistic. Ultimately, everyone reverts back to face-to-face discussion and conversation, the potentially stunting methods actually just facilitate it.

“These in-demand skills have always been a sought after quality, the utilisation of various methods is only redefining how we use these skills, and in fact, opening up more customs of communication rather than default. I would imagine future communication is becoming more efficient and streamlined, rather than stunted.”

However, Lynn Morrison, a partner in EY Australia, worries that the fast-paced nature of these new forms of communication is particularly impacting skills in the younger generations, especially relating to literacy and comfortability with interpersonal communication.

“The importance of literacy is diminishing, as even though there are mistakes or errors in texts or emails, recipients still understand and the objective of communication has been achieved. The business reports written by younger professionals certainly require more revision.

“With people increasingly ‘glued’ to their mobiles or handheld devices, face-to-face communication is becoming uncomfortable for younger generations, and they often turn to their mobiles when they’re meant to be socialising or networking, which is sad. The art of face-to-face conversation can provide enjoyable experiences, which are beneficial for people’s wellbeing, but it’s been challenged in my view.”

Indeed, Leach has noticed newly qualified colleagues arriving into the business with a nervous disposition and hiding behind laptops in order to avoid conversations with clients. Yet, perhaps somewhat ironically, but befitting growing up in an age of swift change, it’s the younger generations that are perhaps also the likeliest to perceive arising problems and adapt to them. “At a conference in Rome we were given a talk on ‘digital disruption’ which discussed this very issue and highlighted that youth today were in fact already aware of this,” says Leach. “In fact, they are already trying to combat this; one notion was ‘phone stacking’.”

Phone stacking

A game that takes place at a social gathering whereby everyone in the group stacks their phones in the middle of the table. The aim is to see who can go the longest without turning to their phone or responding to it, with consequences for those who give in, such as buying a round of drinks or being dared to do something.

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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