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Electronic body language - the trials and tribulations of communication in the online age

Once upon a time we were taught manners, right and wrong, social boundaries, mores and general etiquette for all occasions. Even in the most basic rites of passage we learnt the fundamental keys to human-to-human communication. Look people in the eye. Say thank you. Listen. Don’t interrupt. Talk in hushed tones in a library and holler on a sports field and never (or hardly ever) the other way around.

As children we learnt to interpret the body language of those around us, the many nuances of mood, the tacit meaning in even the most disparate or random of gestures.

Flash forward to now. In this day and age, communication has got murkier and murkier. None of the old rules apply. In the age of the information worker, our prime tool for connecting with those around us – both in a business sense and increasingly in a social sense as well – is our computers. That’s old news. The metabolic rate of online and new media inventions and innovations is so sped up that you can be up with the play one day and behind the times the next.

But what do all these cyber-interactions (for want of better terminology) mean for us in the course of our working lives? What are the implications and where’s the fall-out?

So if you Google ‘email etiquette’ you can get a million and one (well actually approximately 578,000 at last count) pieces of information on the subject. But no definitive rule book, no one unequivocal Eye-of-God-Voice-of-Authority.

I was reading Andrew Scott-Howman’s ‘Life at Work’ blog the other day, and following the link from that one, I also read this one. Yes, the blog itself got me thinking, but more so the comments. One person’s email crime is another’s preference. People are all over the place. And it seems we all have our pet peeves on the subject of Electronic Body Language. And we’ve all got our own opinions. It’s fascinatingly unstraightforward.

An interesting finding (one of many) from the email survey to which Scott-Howman refers:

  • Almost a third of respondents said that fewer than one in four office email messages left them with a positive impression and motivated them to want to work harder with that person.

Are we unwittingly offending people with our emails? Or just simply desensitising them to our needs as we get buried in inboxes full of spam, forwarded jokes and email chains, competing with all the other demands they receive via email in a day?

Could we be communicating better? What are we missing out on? Although dreadful corporate-speak (and I shudder to write the words), there’s something to be said for ‘face time’. Which reminds me of another blog I read a while back about a good old fashioned communications technique called The Chair.

Met with great success, this technique involved two chairs and a sign with a topic for the day. And the person who invented this novel idea – wow, two people actually talking to each other – waited for people to sit down next to her and start talking to her, without rules or stipulations, about the subject at hand, which gave her more open, honest and useful feedback than she ever could have garnered with an email.

No technology required. A Fortune 500 company, and this most primitive of techniques was the breakthrough. It makes you think.

Posted by: Katy Sweetman, Marketing Director, Empired Group | 22 April 2008

Tags: communication

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