Given the title of this article, let’s first be clear about what we are writing about. We do not speak here of communicating inappropriate things, rather we are talking about using a form of communication which is inappropriate for its purpose. Once upon a time and not that long ago, there were two primary forms of communication. You could either talk with someone face-to-face, or you could write them a letter if they were far away. It is pretty easy to assess nonverbal cues and emotions when you are speaking with someone face-to-face, but it is more difficult when you are writing. Perhaps that is why that letters were pages long back in the day, because people wanted to make sure their meaning was completely communicated. There was typically no inappropriate communication, you either spoke to someone or wrote them. One form was not substituted when the other was appropriate. When the telegraph came along in 1844, it dramatically sped up long distance communication, but due to its expense, was not a substitute for a letter.
Perhaps the first electronic device that allowed for inappropriate communication was the telephone. Invented in 1876, there were literally millions of American homes that had a telephone by 1910. With the telephone, you could deliver unpleasant news in a way that allowed you from having to actually see that individual, while simultaneously making it easier to terminate the conversation at a time of your choosing. The addition of voicemail made accomplishing that task easier yet. In the past 30 years, numerous additional forms of communication have been added to our arsenal. Email came first, and by making phones smart we made them ubiquitous. Throw in videoconferencing and social media and you have a virtual communications cornucopia!
Why is it now that we have more ways to communicate than ever, communication has become more difficult than ever? There is certainly no shortage of communication going on, go to any restaurant and observe families gathered around a table where all of them have their heads buried in their phones. I have heard people say that their millennial offspring only communicate on Facebook or text, that it is pointless to send them an email or try to call them. I even know one individual who is completely paralyzed, with no use of his hands. Yet people who know he is paralyzed still send him texts! Perhaps what is needed is a communications primer.
Such a primer would start by distinguishing between when to use verbal and when to use written communication. Verbal communication is typically best used when you need to convey context associated with a message. Verbal communication allows you to use elements of nonverbal communication, tone and intonation in order to strengthen elements of your message in a way that written communication cannot. Additionally, verbal communication is the only method to use when you need immediate feedback from the person to whom a message is being sent. Never substitute a text or an email when what is needed is a conversation.
Written communication is best used when a one-way delivery of facts is required. The beauty of written communication is that it does not take as much time on the part of the receiving party to get the message , and you have a record of what was communicated. Our time is the most precious commodity we all have, so using in person communication when written is appropriate can be a waste of everyone’s time. Written communication is also the most appropriate form to use when you are sending a lot of detail, such as a proposal or technical document. The most difficult thing to communicate in a written document is context. People may take your message in a completely different light than the way you intended it. Perhaps that is the reason for the rise in the use of emoticons, although they may not be appropriate in a business setting.
There is obviously no one correct way of communicating with someone, but as a society we seemed to have lost some awareness of what may be appropriate in different situations. The correct method of communication depends completely on the situation calling for its use in the first place. Perhaps the best way to choose the appropriate form of communication is to put yourself in the shoes of the one to whom the communication is intended. A major part of being an effective communicator is the use of good judgment regarding the type of communication utilized.