Email, as cold as the Cold War
Jessica, 23, shop attendant, got a $99 DNA kit for her birthday. She spat into the test tube and sent it for analysis to find out who her mother was. There is a lot of technology and a little touch there, but it shows the desire for “touch” as in the remembrances of touch by Seamus Heaney in Clearances V on folding blankets with his mother:
“So we'd stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened”
Yet, in advanced economies, touching seems to be turning something of the past. People are becoming isolated, so much so that in the first lines of the 2004 film Crash, Graham says:
“In L.A., nobody touches you... I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.”
Graham’s lines may seem like an exaggeration, but if so, why would the American acting giant Uta Hagen argue that America has become desensitized, illustrating her point with the mushrooming of encounters where Americans get together to learn to touch themselves again?
Some societies ‘touch’ more than others. Indians touch the feet of their elders out of respect but avoid touching others in public. On the other hand, in Brazil, allegations of sexual harassment at work are hard to follow through on account of so much kissing and hugging at work, which has set the pace of modern management.
To overcome distances, multinational organizations are hard-pressed to deploy high-tech instruments to communicate and they are predominantly low-touch ones. Such communication instruments mostly piggybacked on the Internet which also piggybacked on military protocols developed during the Cold War, when effectiveness and efficiency were paramount, but touch less so. This is why we got the cold-blooded email.
Yet, despite drums, horns, and flags, military communications were not always low touch. Think of Shakespeare’s late 16th-century rendition of Henry V and King Henry’s speech on St. Crispin’s Day:
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,”
To secure high engagement, early military communications like that of Henry V’s were face-to-face, and touching, at least in the emotional sense. Similar emotional overtones were obvious on radio broadcast communications during the World War II, as in Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches”. But overall, distance, coupled with low-bandwidth, scrapped the two-way communication of rich overtones, and that is how we landed with the lean email, which set a style.
The lean style of email communication even percolated through instruments to identify high-potentials for future leadership, as in the 9-Box Grid instrument guidelines: “The individual is likely to be demonstrating all or the vast majority of indicators”
Naturally, this lean style of communication failed to allow for the richness necessary to deal with grey areas. This is why emoticons like smileys crept into email communications. Tonalities required more text, and emoticons provided the shorthand for information about how an email text should be interpreted, for instance, as softeners, as in “Please clean-up after using,:) Thanks!”
That the military midwifed low-touch email does not mean that it is satisfying even to the military as the lean communication style seeped through where it makes less sense — in providing feedback; a US Air Force document states:
…people are best understood by, mentored by and led by people…not ones and zeros. A high-tech organization deserves high-touch leadership to maximize the effectiveness of its people.
This is why to better communicate with the shop-attendant who spat into the test tube mentioned above, it would help to know more about her besides her age and gender that was implied in her name, though across cultures names do not always correctly spell-out gender. After all, who has not wondered about the gender for addressing an email: Mr. or Mrs., or Miss, or whatever?
Fortunately, the increased availability of broader bandwidth is making richer communication possible. But communication networks should do more — perhaps create internal homepages with the pictures of collaborators at least. Without going as far as emulating matching sites for romance, it would help to add touch that might give place to faster and more effective communication, i.e. does the addressee have children or pets? What about musical preferences, hobbies, sports, gastronomy, and more?
The increased availability of broader bandwidth is making richer communication possible, but communication networks should do more
Allowing for greater touch in computer-mediated communication can extend to people management instruments to attract better talent into the business. It might also help groom leaders to dissolve the current high tech vs. high touch paradox faster.