Work Lesson #2 – Why Instant Messaging Sucks

Posted on October 17, 2008

I’ve noticed a common thread across relationships – both personal and professional. When the other person “needs to talk” to you, it’s never a good thing.

My boss sent me one such note after a particularly grueling business meeting, just as I was about to head for lunch. As it turns out, he was displeased I chose to telecommute the day before, when supposedly he had asked me to be in the office. Puzzled, and slightly annoyed, I fired back, saying that I had gotten no such request, and that if he needed me on-site, he should have been clearer in his communication. Curtly, he asserted that I am always expected be in the office (1.5 hours from my house) whenever possible.

Things rapidly devolved from there. He all but accused me of insubordination, and I charged him with pointless micromanagement. The tension was thick enough to strangle the both of us. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the swan song of my career.

Would you believe that up until that point, we hadn’t exchanged a single spoken word?

Personally, I think Instant Messaging is one of the crowning achievements of the Internet – allowing us to network real-time with our colleagues and buddies, whether they be in another continent or another room down the hall. For quick questions, chewing the cud, and making lunch plans, it’s hard to beat, especially if you think and type as quickly as I do. The problem is, like any other communication medium, it has its limits, and failing to realize this can have disastrous consequences.

IM’s biggest shortcoming? It absolutely sucks for nonverbal communication. In interpersonal communication, body language, tone of voice and other cues are just as important as the words themselves (many say they make up to 93% of your message, though this is probably an exaggeration and heavily disputed). In any event, an IM conversation provides us with only the words, and a few choice emoticons 😀 with which to crudely approximate our state of mind. That’s not such a big issue if you’re asking a colleague what he thought of the Dodgers game last night, but for critical conversations, such as receiving feedback from your boss, it’s like listening blindfolded, with one of your ears covered.

When our brain can’t detect the subtext of a conversation, it will attempt to approximate one – either from our existing knowledge of the other person, or (as happens very often) making it up completely. In that moment, I imagined by boss – towering over me with laser-focused eyes, peering into my soul, finding me wanting, and pointing a finger in judgment. I can only speculate as to what he saw – a defiant, intimidating, big black guy, with folded arms and a glare to cut diamonds. Fortunately, we decided to take this conversation on the phone, and as soon as we heard each other’s voices, we realized just how badly we had misunderstood each other. Things got easier from there, and needless to say, the dispute was resolved much more amicably.

The moral is simple – important conversations deserve the full clarity of face-to-face communication, or at the very least, a call on the phone. Not only will you be more likely to understand the other person, but it’s much harder to be evil when you can hear the person at the other end.

» Filed Under Work


One Response to “Work Lesson #2 – Why Instant Messaging Sucks”

  1. Drew CrawfordNo Gravatar on October 24th, 2008 8:01 am

    This is a great post and something that I’ve thought about quite a bit. I try to always assume that the person I’m IMing is in a chipper mood, but sometimes that is just impossible.

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