Communication is fundamentally about connection. Connecting to people, connecting to places, connecting to ideas, etc. I’ve written this often: it’s one of the first things we learn as babies. We learn to communicate our wants and needs – mostly through crying.
Children will probably always be among my favorite people to communicate with because they are straightforward. If they need something, want something, or have a problem with something, you’re going to know – they’re most likely going to cry.
As we get older, we inherit the communication of those around us, and through nature and nurture, most of us develop our own communication style. Some styles are better than others. Or at least more effective than others. But from the young age of socialization at home (hopefully), at school, and in our communities, the importance of good communication is emphasized.
But what is good communication? If you ask many people, they might tell you that good communication is situation-specific. I agree. But I would add too, the importance of culture in communication.
For example, power distance between you and other(s) when communicating may be of greater or lesser importance depending on where you are. Also, if you are in a high-context culture (collectivist culture), in-group understanding is valuable; specific words are of great importance as is what is left unsaid. In low-context cultures (individualist culture), communication is less ambiguous and more explicit.
The above mentioned is part of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory which defines cultural communication by power distance, individualism vs collectivism, masculinity vs. femininity, uncertainty avoidance, long-term orientation vs short-term orientation, and some places include indulgence vs. restraint. It’s an imperfect model for understanding cross-cultural or intercultural communication but it’s a good place to start.
What appears to be culturally universal (even when specificity according to each culture must be considered), is that communication is less about the words that you use, and more about your tone, and to a greater extent, your non-verbal exchange. What does this mean in the world of instant messages and what does this have to do with love and jobs?
Bold statement: A lot of people are poor communicators. And that, I think, might be culturally universal too. I say this from firstly the personal experience of perpetually living in multiple cultures in my identity as a third culture kid. I also say this having had exposure to conducting research in work cultures, school cultures, and media analysis. Then there is my observation of (and participation in) interpersonal relationships in all the ways they come.
One of the proposed advantages of the digital culture is assisting us in all forms of communication – from the interpersonal to the public dissemination of messages. And indeed we have more means of communication currently than we’ve ever had. We don’t often appreciate how amazing it is to be able to call, text, video call, etc. someone who is on the other side of the planet.
Yet people still complain about communication. Of the many complaints, I find two particularly interesting: 1.) The notion that with so much information consumption, it gets hard to really understand anything. 2.) Our digital communication has adversely affected our interpersonal relationships.
So it seems that in the world of the instantaneous message, which I characterize simply as the instant message, we’re having problems of sincerity, and we’re having problems with connecting to our parents, partners, friends, and colleagues. In other words, we’re often failing to connect. Or at least we’re failing to connect in the ways we want to in our homes, in our jobs, and elsewhere.
Consider the reality that e-mail, text, and other forms of digital conversations consume most of our lives in this part of the world – the West. How many times during the day do we actually come into contact with people and communicate in person?
We use workplace platforms to instantaneously message the co-workers sitting right next to us. Or like many of us – we live far away from our coworkers so we have to do this. We g-chat and text our friends and family throughout the day probably more than we actually see them. Romantic connections over instant messages are built. The communication compatibility in texting is seen as crucial in dating. Social media is a factor in divorce.
A misunderstanding in tone in e-mail between a parent and child. An unreplied text between significant others. A communication exchange that is unclear in the workplace platform. These are all things that happen, and they happen regularly. And it affects everything from our support systems to our job performances. We have access to each other but our connections are not necessarily better. They leave many anxious, worried, misunderstood, and oftentimes, tired.
We’re communicating more than ever during the time of the instant message but we’re not necessarily doing it better.
What is the solution to our communication problems in the time of the instant message?
We already have to account for situation and culture – and with the influence of many individualist cultures over collectivist cultures, that changes cultural communication altogether. Every individual too, within any culture, must be met wherever they are at.
We also have to account for personality style – from the passive-aggressive persona to the overly confrontational, and everything in between. And building our relationships that are “love-based” or “work-based” if we’re truly conscientious and concerned about it, becomes another task of the day.
I know for instance that I’m a direct person. It’s a blessing and a curse. Sure, I come from a culture that’s collectivist and know how to operate in that setting, and depending on language too, I change my communication.
But as for my specific personality and certainly the self that is most apparent in this part of the world, I am simply straightforward. Thus, I tend to suffer most when communicating with passive-aggressive people. (I think most non-passive-aggressive people do.) But I also know that direct isn’t everyone’s approach, and it isn’t necessarily always the best approach. Not even in the age of the instant message.
I do think in this age, it is absolutely vital to take extra care in our communications. Depending on culture of course, I think being as precise as possible in each communication, and what each is trying to achieve, reduces many of our problems. It is also of utmost importance to be a multiple-style communicator. By this I mean take into consideration every individual you must communicate with instantaneously.
Ask yourself: What’s their communication style? For example, I know that one of my brothers is very unlikely to respond to a text unless you ask him a question. So even if a question ordinarily wouldn’t be asked at the end of a message, I’ll still attach one at the end such as, “What do you think about that?” It doesn’t cost me any extra pain to do this and it works.
We’re having to build part of our relationships with people – close relationships – via instantaneous messages. We’re learning about them, learning about ourselves, and forming parts of our identity in the time of the instant message, and we’re all new to this. So even when we have to consider the situation, culture, personality, style, and what seems like an endless list of things to remember, we also have to often be reminded of the basics.
What are these basics? The best communicators are sincere, self-aware, other-aware, and reliable. Instant message will not change this; but failing to remember this can destroy or save many of our relationships in love, in jobs, and everywhere else.