Communication for introverts

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Posted by: stak
Posted on: 2008-04-07 21:18:07

An interesting article got Slashdotted today. Interesting to me, anyway, since I've been thinking a lot about different means of communication recently and how they all suck in various ways. There are basically four major methods of communication that I use - face-to-face conversations, email, instant messaging, and phone. The article above mentions Twitter as another, but I don't use that. I guess Facebook status messages are similar in concept, but off by an order of magnitude.

Face and phone conversations usually have very low latency; responses are basically instant. IM is next, with average response times of probably a minute or so, and email can be minutes to hours (or with some people, days). IM is the broken one here, because if the IM chat is the only thing you're doing, then minute-long gaps are long times to be twiddling your thumbs. On the other hand, if it's not the only thing you're doing, then minute-long gaps aren't long enough (for me, anyway) to be able to focus on something else. Like the author of that article, I suck at multitasking and much prefer focusing on a single thing at a time, which is impossible in the average IM conversation. If I'm actually trying to be productive, I usually just turn off my IM client altogether. And if I'm chatting on IM, then the odds are pretty good that I'm twiddling my thumbs and staring blankly at the chat window between replies.

Face/phone conversations usually require dedicated time from all participants. Some people can multitask well enough that they can be on the phone while doing other things, but most don't seem to. As a result, I end up wasting less on the phone than I do on IM. Email usually has a high enough latency that it's asynchronous and people don't expect an immediate response. This isn't always true though; for example, you have a BlackBerry and work at RIM, email is considered to be closer to IM. But for the most part, a delay of minutes to hours is par for email.

The other property of communication channels is bandwidth: how easy it is to communicate an idea. Here I find face conversations are the clear winner. When you're talking to somebody in person, not only can you hear their words, but you can see their gestures along with a whole ton of body language that helps you understand exactly what they mean. Even if they mis-speak, it's usually quite easy to auto-correct what they said just based on the momentum of their speech and their gestures. Every other method of communication pales in comparison to face conversation when it comes to bandwidth, but some are worse than others.

I have a pretty lousy phone voice, and so I generally dislike talking on the phone because I often end up having to repeat myself. The other problem is that phone conversations have low latency (see above). This means a response is expected pretty much instantaneously, but you don't have the same amount of information that you do in a face conversation. All that body language gets stripped out and all you're left with is the person's choice of words and intonation. From that data alone, you have to reconstruct the full depth of the message they were trying to convey. Some people can do this easily, but for me it takes time to think about the various possible meanings and choose the right one. Of course, since the response is expected right away, I can't take the time to explore all the meanings and end up having to guess, which often works out poorly.

Email is much better than phone when it comes to bandwidth, because even though you have even less information, you have plenty of time. If you get an email with poorly chosen words or ambiguous tone, you can take a few hours to think about what the person really meant before you reply (and with some of the emails I've received, it actually does take hours before I am able to figure out which missing word or grammatical correction is the key to reconstructing the message). In that respect, it is much better than a phone conversation. IM falls in the middle here. I would consider IM to have higher bandwidth than email simply because the people conversing over IM tend to be roughly in sync since it's an ongoing conversation. Context about the participants moods is lost over email, but is preserved over IM.

It's hard to simply rank the four channels in order of preference, because it also depends on the person I'm communicating with. Some people have horrible typos that make reading emails or IMs from them near impossible. Others tend to drone on and on, making phone and face conversations with them really difficult (although thankfully these people also don't seem to mind if you fall asleep while they're talking). For the vast majority of conversations face conversations seem to be best, and for me, email probably sneaks into second place.

Posted by Varun at 2008-04-08 10:34:31
And where does blogging fit in? :)
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Posted by stak at 2008-04-08 19:46:34
Well, blogging's extremely high latency, very lossy, and not exactly bi-directional. It's not useful for serious conversations; I use it mostly as something to broadcast random ideas into The Void (TM). Except for the above post, of course :p
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