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Blog // Productivity
1 week ago

Communication Meltdown

Something is wrong with the way we communicate. We’ve lost control. And we’re drowning in misinformation as a result.

I don’t often write rants. And I don’t post as frequently as I used to about productivity. But I’m going to do both right now.

Have you ever sent someone an email and then they reply with a text message? Or a Direct Message on social media? Or, worst of all, a phone call?

Maybe you’ve asked for a specific piece of information. And the response is a forwarded email, with the information you requested buried deep in a series of nested replies. Or you just get a link to a random document that lives somewhere online.

Then there’s that moment when you need to make a decision, or review an action. You find yourself having to reconstruct all the information you need from a litany of touchpoints strewn across various apps and corners of the internet.

Yeah, I hate all of that.

Not on the level of personal preferences. Not for aesthetic reasons.

This scattered approach to communication is bad for us. Bad for our attention span. Unsafe. And unhealthy.

Communicative Promiscuity

Few phrases crush my soul like “I put it in a Google doc” or “I’ll forward the email to you.” I die inside when people reply to an email with a DM on social media. Or I have to use some random app or platform to continue the conversation.

I’m not alone. In a funny short essay, Gwynna Forgham-Thrift sums up this angst in a piece entitled My Comments Are in the Google Doc Linked in the Dropbox I Sent in the Slack.

As delightful as it is, the piece ends on a sardonic note some people revert to when faced with this challenge.

“You know what? Should I just walk over to your desk, and we can go through them out loud?”

Maybe.

Sometimes a face-to-face conversation is better. But it’s also sometimes better to send a well-worded email with a clear call to action. We use phrases like “drop by” or “pop over”, but face-to-face conversations never take seconds. A 200-word email will take less than a minute to read.

Every medium of communication has attributes and weaknesses, benefits and limitations, which we trade off when choosing one tool over another. We need a way to think about this.

Honest Talk About Face To Face

Many situations in society normalise extroversion. This is especially true in corporate workplaces. And amongst the older leaders of those organisations. That’s what makes the face-to-face option seem like the best and most natural choice.

But it isn’t necessarily true for the half of the population who are introverts. There are plenty of situations where an email might be a better way to traverse a power gap between two people. Or manage very different ways of working or thinking. After all, many creatives are introverts.

Sometimes the email is a good way to document. To “get it in writing”, so to speak. Not relying on each person’s memory of a verbal agreement.

Also, email is a way to manage priorities. The “get back to me later” nature of email is sometimes exactly what we need. Sometimes, our attention needs to be elsewhere. And moving an issue along might be enough for now. If we treat everything like a priority – something we need to solve immediately – we will get little done.

Or we will divide our attention so much that we do nothing well.

The problem isn’t the digital communication. It’s the volume of it we encounter. The thoughtless way it gets used. And how conversations get scattered across platforms and channels. Typically, the messages we encounter are rushed and poorly formatted at the expense of easy comprehension. It takes effort to hold together such fragmented conversations.

And all this is made worse by the assumption that communicating faster is always better. That talking it out is preferable to thinking it through. That verbalising words is easier than choosing them with care. Or writing them out.

The Allure of a Dumb Phone

Every time I log on to social media, someone is proclaiming their desire to switch to a “dumb phone”. It’s never an actual message to say they’ve done it. There’s never a photo of their new dumb phone. It’s always a desire. A hope. A wish.

I get the appeal of these kinds of phones. The Light Phone, in particular, caught my attention when it was first released. The simple design feels like the path towards digital minimalism.

The irony is you could make your iPhone “dumb” if you wanted to. You don’t have to install social media apps. You can turn off some or all notifications. Focus modes allow you to limit the use of some apps at certain times of the day or when doing specific activities. You can even enter “Simple” mode via the iPhone’s accessibility settings.

Not only can you make your device “dumb”, but you can also make it “dumb” in exactly the way you want.

Actually, the allure of the “dumb phone” is more of a cry for help than anything else.

Changing the phone we use is a digital band-aid. The feeling of overwhelm comes from the way communication dominates our lives. A false sense of urgency makes things worse. The solution is to set higher standards for how we communicate.

Quality Is Lost and Misinformation Reigns

Sending information is not the same as communicating. But digital messages are often sent as if the only goal is distributing packets of data. This has been described as the bullet theory of communication. Shooting information at each other like bullets.

However, the message we send isn’t the whole story. What gets received, and understood, is what matters. A well-communicated message lands clearly. Completely. Coherently.

Many of us worry that AI is coming for our jobs. Perhaps we should worry. Poor communication sets a low bar for AI. The best tool we have to prove AI isn’t the solution is to clean up our own act and communicate more effectively.

Poor-quality, fragmented communication creates an opportunity for AI to fix. High-quality, well-directed communication sets a high hurdle for AI. Human communication at its best is profound, subtle, and effective. AI has not demonstrated an ability to replicate this.

The added benefit is better communication feels less overwhelming. Fewer but more meaningful messages allows us to feel more focused and less stressed.

This is good because we need every mental resource to overcome the barrage of misinformation headed towards us. The problem is bad. AI will make it worse. We must avoid wasting our energy on trying to make sense of poor-quality, fragmented communication. Instead, we should use that energy to check the cogency and veracity of the ideas we encounter.

The Choice to Not Choose

We seem to treat technology like the tides. A cosmic force we are helpless to resist. Facebook made us angry. Instagram made us narcissistic. We go as far as to suggest Twitter (now X) ruined democracy!

It’s like the story of King Canute placing his throne on the shoreline and commanding the tide to turn back. The popular myth is he was a fool who overestimated his royal powers. Historians suggest what might’ve happened was an object lesson for his followers, the king trying to teach them about the limits of human authority in the face of divine power.

We know royalty lack magical powers or divine majesty. We understand gravity, the movement of planets and their moons.

Yet we ascribe magical powers to the technology around us. It is not irresistible. We are not enslaved to it or unable to regulate its impact on our lives.

If Twitter, or Slack, or email, or any form of digital communication sucks, it’s because of the many choices every user makes. Sure, the tech could always improve. More features. Clearer design. Better moderation.

But the style in which we communicate… that’s a choice. We choose clarity or incoherence. Focus or fragmentation. Calm or angst. We choose the world of words and ideas we want to live in.

How To Communicate Better

Something has gone wrong with the way we communicate. This isn’t a “tech is bad” rant. It’s not the tools but the way we use them. And it’s not aimed at any one group. We, collectively, are making a mess of communicating with each other.

Thankfully, we can opt for clarity over chaos. Here’s a few things all of us can do.

1. Audit: Take a look at how you communicate and how you receive communication. How does thinking about it make you feel? How many different platforms do the same people use to communicate with you? How long would it take you to find a specific piece of information someone sent you a month ago? What kind of messages need a reply right away? Which ones can wait?

2. Make some choices: Spend a little time thinking about each channel of communication you use. What is it good for? Where does it falter? Think about channels you might want to drop. Or ones you might want to use more deliberately. Identify the places in your life where better quality communication should be a priority.

3. Set some boundaries: “Pick your brain” is one of the phrases I decided not to respond to. You’ll need to find your own boundaries. Apps you will and won’t use. The speed and cadence at which you respond. It’s your job to show people what your boundaries are.

4. Be consistent: All this depends on living up to your own goals and standards. Lead by example.

Radical Asynchronicity

The idea that we have to reply to every message, email, or notification right away is killing us. It’s ruining our attention span. Our ability to concentrate and create. The quality of our lives. Our relationship to nature. And our own mental health.

We don’t have to be like this.

We built our civilisations on asynchronous communication. Inscribed tablets, scrolls, letters – even telegrams – carried the best ideas and scientific insights. These took time to travel. And the recipients read them at their own pace.

Books are the great example of this. A writer condenses years of work into one physical object. You might read it in a month, or a year, or a century later.

But our instantaneous communication is great as well. We need both. Synchronous and asynchronous. Not a balance. Or a trade-off. But both.

Think of it like a garden. A variety of different plants that reach our senses in different ways. Some might have strong scents. Others, none. Some blossom or change colour once a year in dramatic, eye-catching ways. Others don’t flower at all but continue to fill the landscape all year. They all complement each other. The result is harmony. And you never confuse one plant for another.

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