a phone receiver hangs by its cord

Did you get my message? When to text, email or pick up the darn phone

The other day, my phone rang. You know, that clunky, plastic thing gathering dust on my desk’s back corner. I answered it and had a brief discussion with a client about some needed changes to a document. The whole shebang lasted two, maybe three minutes.

PhoneI then went back to my editing, and over the course of the next hour had to stop and start several times thanks to a barrage of emails and IMs. The whole experience left me wondering about just how effective texting (via desktop outlet or phone) and emails are vs. the good, ol’ fashioned phone call.

Phone It In: A Tale of 2 Viewpoints

I’ll cheerfully admit that some of this is generational. Today’s phones … pardon me, smartphones … are designed to be tiny laptops. And they are the go-to for most everyone from toddlers on up. The fact that they work as telephones is a tertiary (if that) concern behind Internet access, messaging and apps. And that’s fine. I don’t need a call from someone saying they’ll be a few minutes late for lunch. Texts are great time savers in that regard. But texts or IMs can’t convey meaning in the same way an actual, live conversation can.

Consider the following responses:

  • Thanks.
  • Thanks!
  • Thanks…

In order, these could mean ‘I could care less,’ ‘this is terrific,’ ‘what on earth are you talking about?’ or none of the above. And the only way to know for sure is verbal cues.

Go Verbal or Go Home

The supporters of instant and text messaging will say, long and loud, that these concise messages free up time for other things. Snippets are just fine, adherents argue, because calling someone is not current business practice, and it’s also tragically unhip. Twitter’s IPO last week would certainly underwrite that position.

But if I need info about a project or a quote for an article, I don’t want to sit and type out a string of messages onscreen or on my phone, back-and-forthing until I have all the data I need. And that’s where email comes in. It’s not the same as a live conversation, but done right it can vastly outpace IM and text. Lay out the issue, make your request and hit “send.” (Then pray you don’t wind up with a back-and-forth that creates a horrendous email thread where the info you need is buried somewhere around the second response of fifteen.) For all its pitfalls, email went from the way of the future to a quaint relic in a remarkably short period of time, and it deserves far more respect than it gets.

So what’s the solution? 

As is ever the case, technology may have found a way for us live-call Luddites and the trigger-fingered texters to meet in the middle: video chat. Most IM providers offer it, and the ongoing success of Skype shows that people still like to actually look at the person they’re speaking with on occasion. Videoconferences still hold sway in the boardroom as well, as they are effective for connecting employees to each other, as well as to clients, from across town or the globe.

In the end, it’s about how and when we talk with each other. Not at each other, with each other. Having a variety of ways to converse means that we should embrace all of our choices, not ignore two out of three. If you’re late for our meeting, by all means shoot me an IM or text. If you need to reschedule, a quick email requesting a postponement is sensible. But if you’re putting off our meeting because you’re having trouble with our shared project and are unclear about its goals, then pick up the darn phone and let’s sort it out.