There’s a common tale I hear that seems to epitomize being a drift in a sea of corporate anonymity. It is some variant on the theme that people are using asynchronous communication media when actually (to their knowledge or not) seated pretty close to one another. At its most facepalm, it’s perhaps two people who sit within 20 feet of one another dialing into a webex for a scheduled meeting between the two of them. But at its most deceptively understandable, it’s two people in a similar situation exchanging emails.
“Just get up and talk to each other!” exclaims an exasperated witness to the exchange.
In the case of the webex, the communication barrier seems legitimately hard to justify. It’s like calling someone in the next room to watch TV together or something. But in the case of email, I can offer justification, though perhaps not the justification you might think. I’ll circle back around to this.
Susan Cain on Introverts
I’ve written a few posts on the subject of introversion over the last few years, including this first one that was relatively popular. In response to these posts, I’ve gotten some recommendations to purchase Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.” Her audio book now resides on my phone and I’m listening to it as I travel. It’s worth a listen/read, and I’m definitely going to be writing more on this topic, particularly as I wrestle with the friction that has been created by making extroversion the new hotness in the programming world.
The book has offered an explanation of my own psyche that is downright eerie in how well it describes me. Introversion, apparently is marked by a good bit more than just needing alone time to “recharge one’s batteries” after spending time in social situations. Here are the themes from my post that Cain predicts of introverts (and, this apparently describes me quite well, as I got a 20 out of 20 on the informal “are you an introvert” quiz near the beginning).
- Fine with public speaking (potentially).
- Risk aversion.
- Over-thinking and over-preparing for social interactions.
- Impatience with small talk with strangers (e.g. about the weather).
- Introverts as highly analytical.
- Strong preference for written communication.
That last one is kind of interesting, eh? An introvert will tend to favor the written word as a means of communicating ideas.
The Extrovert Ideal
The problem with introverts favoring written communication is that they’re wrong. Getting up and talking to one another is the proper, sociable thing to do. We learn this from a young age, sending children to public schools, part of whose ostensible charters is fostering “social skills.” Those who aren’t with the program are flagged as problem children or, at least, singled out for special help so that they can function as expected in group settings. This is excellent preparation for the corporate setting where teams, meetings, and group efforts are the standard way to get things done.
So if introverts would prefer to communicate via email, our social and corporate mores dictate that they should fix that about themselves. They should get up and go talk to that other person, collaborating like good corporate citizens.
Susan Cain, in her book, does an excellent job of describing just how much the world considers extroversion to be right and introversion to be wrong. She talks about the rise of the salesman, self-promoting culture called the “Culture of Personality.” I won’t go into detail here, but suffice it to say that society funnels everyone toward extroversion to such an extent that there are psychotropic drugs that exist to "fix" introverts.
Communication Effectiveness by Medium
Let’s then toss aside, for a moment, the idea that there’s a socially preferable approach and simply evaluate email versus oral collaboration. With email collaboration, parties communicate with a volley-pattern, each receiving, processing, and responding in turn to the other. With in-person collaboration, things are somewhat more ad-hoc. The rhythm of the conversation will depend more heavily on the mannerisms, social tendencies, and even physical speaking volume of the participants, and there may be more of a tendency to digress.
Email conversations are generally less likely to feature someone saying, “we’re getting kind of off-track here” and they’re also less likely to result in bullet points being missed. After all, if I send out a list of items in an email, everyone will have them to refer to during all subsequent conversation. In person (and without, say, a shared presentation), the items will get addressed only provided that I remember to address all of them and I’m not distracted from doing so via a digression.
When it comes to thoroughness and organization, the introverts actually have it right. Thinking ahead of time, organizing one’s thoughts and stating one’s case results in more efficiency than a more ad-hoc meeting, which might result in inefficiencies or even socializing. So, should the people emailing each other across the office really, “just get up and talk to each other?” Well, I’d say it depends on the goal.
Collaborate to Bond
Collaboration on a common effort is a morale boon. This is even true for introverts, though we’ll tend to prefer smaller groups and more time to internalize stimuli and process our responses. We’re all humans, and humans are social animals with varied taste in the particulars and nature of that socialization.
If you have two team members communicating over webex or email because they aren’t familiar or comfortable with one another, then that’s a smell. It’s important that they get to know one another and achieve mutual comfort so that they can be happy and productive in their collaboration.
But if you have two team members communicating over email, it may be that asynchronous, detailed communication with a breadcrumb trail is the most efficient way to do what they’re doing. There’s nothing wrong with that. We shouldn’t get so concerned with chasing the extrovert ideal that we strip people of effective means of collaboration. We all deserve the benefit of the doubt.