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Is Electronic Communication Sapping Our Souls?

We don't talk to each other anymore.

And for the most part, people seem to be OK with that. According to the hundreds of people who responded to this well-crafted, tongue-in-cheek New York Times column on this very subject, the telephone is not just an anachronism; it's an annoyance. It's far better to embrace technology! It's more efficient to text and email! And there's plenty of data that says they're not alone.

Me, I think it's horrible.

I have 3 computers and (of course) a smartphone, and like most of you, I am tethered almost 24/7. I just did a rough scan of my inboxes and my sent mail, and it appears I've handled about 600 emails in one way or another over the past five business days on this PC alone. That doesn't include several hundred more I dealt with over the weekend. In that same period, I probably made or received fewer than 30 or 40 voice calls. So unscientifically, maybe 5% of my communication outside the home is verbal. I love technology, but seeing what it's done to my behavior makes me a little sick.

Before the people who know me jump all over this (and boy, they will), I readily acknowledge -- as I have in past articles -- that I have been guilty of writing too many and too-lengthy emails over the years. But I am working on it, and I think they'd agree I'm making great progress and picking up the phone much more often.

Why is "e-only" communication so wrong?

1. It's often far less efficient than picking up the phone. Email can be a great tool. But how many emails do we all get and receive that turn into a dozen back-and-forth comments, when a quick phone call or a pop into someone's office would dispense with the matter in one quick conversation? Too often we use email to hide behind a virtual (and literal) firewall and let fly messages that may waste more time than they save.

I have a colleague who has a wonderful, standard way of dealing with this. When an email thread turns into an endless conversation, he sends a simple one-line request: "This is a phone call."

2. It can be dangerous. We've all experienced situations where someone misunderstands the tone of a nonverbal message, or when we've pushed the "send" button and regretted it a moment later. When you can't look someone in the eye, or hear the tone of her voice, the risk of misinterpretation is high. Any message that carries this risk should be delivered off-line.

3. Keyboard-dependent communication dumbs down our culture. Courtesy, propriety, elegance, and proficiency are all on a slippery slope of ones and zeros. Our business emails are starting to look more like teenagers' text messages. Think that it is a victimless crime? I disagree. Our culture and its standards are victims. So are our children, who will have to make it in an increasingly competitive world where education and intellectual development are critical factors. And while many countries like China and Japan are even more text-obsessed than we are, they are also more obsessed with education, professional relationships, and business etiquette. Do we want our kids bringing a knife to a gunfight?

4. An e-barricaded business has no soul. Very few businesses -- especially small businesses -- can get away with putting up electronic barriers to customer access. To be sure, many businesses use virtual tools in good ways, and maybe you can think of a few that do a good job without ever talking to anyone. But generally speaking it is hard, if not impossible, to provide world-class customer service without live humans.

Think of the legendary customer service companies, online or off, and there's a common thread of a "soul" that revolves around human interaction: Apple (Genius Bar), Nordstrom (Gold Standard of live retail service), Zappos (instant and unlimited human access), USAA (ditto), Jet Blue (no airline-phone-menu hell), and others. Then think of the worst service companies, and chances are one of their common threads is human inaccessibility.

We have all kinds of incredible communication tools at our disposal, but using them as a substitute for -- or worse, a way to avoid -- direct human interaction is not my idea of progress.

Please share your thoughts, and check out these other articles on related subjects:

(Flickr photo by Katie Tegtmeyer)