It’s unclear when exactly humans began communicating using some primitive form of oral language. Researchers believe it could have started anywhere from 50,000 to two million years ago. Regardless, it’s been a while.
Throughout those thousands of years, up until very recently, communication has existed primarily in person. Once telephones infiltrated homes and businesses, things changed a bit, but communication still took the form of audible conversations.
And during that time, we developed all sorts of habits, customs, and social norms around in-person and telephone conversations. We do things like nod our head, make eye contact, or react with other facial expressions to show we’re listening when we’re face-to-face. We encourage the speaker to continue with an “mmhmm” or a “yeah” on the phone. We’ve even learned how verbal cues like tone of voice, speed, inflection, and nonverbal cues like hand/body gestures (in person), reflect emotions and intent.
Most of us learned some set of manners, too. Interrupting someone who’s talking, we’re taught, is rude; We’re supposed to stop what we’re doing to look at someone who’s addressing us; In the days of house phones, we’d never call someone very late at night or early in the morning unless it was an emergency. Even calls during dinner time were considered a bit impolite.
Today, we’re seldom concerned about interrupting people when we reach out to them. We forget when we’re using digital communication that we might be interrupting someone’s conversation, work, task, thought, or sleep every time we communicate electronically in some way. So that means with every text, email, call, FaceTime, voice memo, DM, like, comment, Snapchat photo, tag, ping, Slack message, follow request, we’re straying from that social norm.
Electronic communication is a very new invention, and its channels have multiplied in just the last two decades. All of a sudden, these channels have become our primary means of communication, and we’ve subsequently abandoned the nuances and norms around both oral and nonverbal communication that we abided by for years.
Now we’re all a little bit lost. Or maybe just overwhelmed. Or both. We no longer have many of the guidelines that once helped us interact with each other. And now we communicate at all hours of the day—early mornings, nights, and even dinner time. It’s pretty much a free-for-all.
We wake up to a symphony of notification chimes when we unlock our phones in the morning. If you woke up to 12 messages on your answering machine 30 years ago, you’d probably assume someone was in the hospital or jail.
Sure, we can set our own boundaries by turning off notifications for some apps, turning on sleep mode, or whatever. But other people aren’t aware of the limits we’re setting, so they’re not respecting them, and they have a whole set of boundaries themselves.
Everyone interacts with technology differently. We use different apps and platforms. Even the devices we use, from phones to computers to tablets, wearables, and smart speakers, affect how and when we communicate. The whole process is far more multilayered than we could have ever expected.
It was all pretty simple when we just used phones. Outside of meeting in person, that’s how conversations happened. Today you could message someone on LinkedIn, not knowing that they haven’t checked their LinkedIn messages since they landed a new job seven months ago. Your colleague might be angry at you for emailing them at midnight and waking them up, but maybe you assumed their phone would be on silent and that they’d read the email at a more appropriate time. Maybe you don’t have push notifications enabled for emails and can’t imagine that anyone would. There isn’t one socially acceptable way to do it, so we often make false assumptions about why someone’s not answering, what their comment meant, etc.
We speak differently digitally, too. A one-word response is a perfectly normal response to one person and a slap in the face to another. One person thinks sending three emojis is a good way to help the recipient understand their message. Another person thinks it looks absolutely manic. There are no emojis in the real world, just facial expressions. We don’t really have any context for what “normal” in this case would be.
So, each person has their own random set of rules about how to communicate electronically. Part of getting to know someone in the world today is, to a large degree, learning about those habits. In the past year especially, we’ve relied on our devices more than ever before, making it all a bit more complicated because the nature of communication is continuing to change.
Of course, enormous good has come from these forms of technology. Advancements have allowed us to see and stay connected to loved ones and continue doing our jobs during a difficult, unforeseen period of isolation.
There’s a pretty good chance that in the future, we’ll communicate through electronic devices even more than we already do. It might become easier to navigate other people’s interactions with technology, but it could also become more difficult.
That’s why we highly emphasize over-communication at AE Studio.
Many of the clients we work with aren’t based in Los Angeles, where we are, and part of our team lives and works in Brazil. When there’s not a pandemic on, we fly everyone together in person for company retreats to Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean, and fly people to and from Brazil and LA. But usually, we’re constantly managing Zoom meetings, Slack channels, emails, and the like, along with accommodating various time zones. The margin for miscommunication is especially wide.
Despite this, we succeed in maintaining our company’s core values, staying connected as a team, and doing pretty great work. We’ve found emphasizing over-communication to be one of the single most effective ways to ensure that happens.
We think it’s worth spending a little extra time making sure our emails and Slack messages are as clear as possible. We also really urge our team members to ask questions, double-check, and seek clarification—and we try to create a space that makes them feel comfortable doing that. We believe it’s a lot better to over-explain than under-explain, when we can.
Also, from a pure economic standpoint, it’s better to make sure that we stay on the same page rather than unintentionally miscommunicating and running in different directions. We’re constantly surprised how bad at this most organizations are and how in sync we tend to be comparatively. One single bad miscommunication can waste days, weeks, or months—far more than the extra few seconds it takes to write a slightly more over-communicative message in Slack.
Sending longer responses in Slack instead of just a "yes," and sharing when we might be more or less likely to respond based on schedules and personal preferences goes a surprisingly long way. Plus, it makes people happier, which increases productivity in turn.
We all inevitably, unintentionally violate others’ personal preferences around digital communication, so we try to be forgiving when it happens. That makes us happier and more productive, too.
It’s also a good idea, in our experience, to err on the side of being nice in digital communication—nicer than you think you need to be. It’s easy to misinterpret the things other people type, to assume they’re speaking in a certain tone when that’s probably not the case. At least if we’re making a conscious effort to be nice, we probably won’t be mistaken for sounding rude.
One day we hope brain-computer interfaces will alleviate some of the pain of electronic communication and human communication in general. We’re working on that here at AE, too. Right now, the best we can do is be a little more mindful, forthcoming, and empathetic in our quest to connect with others, and we’re having a pretty great time discovering better and better ways to do precisely that.