We lawyers are always telling people to document their files. “If it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen,” we advise. That’s still true, but let’s stop writing everything down for just a minute, and ask ourselves if people are losing all interest in conducting business conversations over the phone.
Each year, students are asked to write essays on the relative merits of texting and talking. (The “Study Mode ” website has links to more than 370 essays and term papers on the benefits and dangers of texting.) Texting a message to someone on the other side of the lunch room may be one way to ask the object of one’s desire to the school dance, but it lacks that sincere, personal touch.
A 2012 Time magazine report noted, “Americans ages 18–29 send and receive an average of nearly 88 text messages per day, compared to 17 phone calls. The numbers change as we get older, with the overall frequency of all communication declining, but even in the 65 and over group, daily texting still edges calling 4.7 to 3.8.” I assume that the study didn’t count all the telemarketing calls that seniors receive daily.
In business, we are seeing professionals of all stripes using emails as the default mode of communication. And why not? They’re efficient, written and establish a record of being sent and received. When I ask a younger colleague to “call” someone, he or she will invariably send an email instead, unless I add “(note the verb)” in my request. “Call” has become just another word for “communicate,” with any other synonym considered interchangeable.
Is reading a text or email the same as hearing someone speak? Consider “The Voice,” the popular TV talent competition. Would it have the same viewership if it were “The Lyrics,” with the words to the songs simply scrolling up the screen? Would you pay more than $100 for “concert” tickets to watch the words to Santana’s “Evil Ways” projected on the megatron at the stadium? Probably not. Voice, tone and inflection make a communication more personal, more affecting. To borrow a term from techland, vocal communications have much wider bandwidth.
Professionals can learn much more about their clients’ levels of satisfaction, concern or disaffection in a voice-to-voice exchange than from a 140-character message. It’s an opportunity for the client to ask for clarifications and for the professional to glean what other “value added” services the client might need.
Should those meaningful vocal communications be memorialized in writing? Yes, certainly, although some care is needed, as my partner Steven Young advised in one of the first posts in Professional Liability Advocate.
Professionals walk a tightrope, upon which the need for “professional distance” is balanced with the need to appear (and be) caring and concerned.
Hmm, a tightrope is sort of a lifeline, isn’t it? And it looks a lot like a phone wire, strung between two poles …