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The Right Equipment: Balancing Electronic and Human Communication

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The debate about technology’s impact on our ability to communicate effectively will likely continue for some time. Many people are convinced that social technology sets us up for misinterpretation and destroys all opportunity for subtlety in our messages.[1] Others believe that our constant reliance on texting, email and social media is destroying the meaningfulness of our relationships and personal interactions.[2] And there is clear evidence that many of the characteristics of today’s technology blunt human empathy.[3]

There is no question that the convenience of our technological tools makes keeping in touch easier than ever. But is keeping in touch replacing touch? Are electronic connections replacing attachment? And are we defining “friend” in a completely different way?

Achieving Communication Balance

Our increasing reliance on electronic communications is not inherently bad. Recent research, however, suggests that some balance should be brought to bear. Studies show that youth who lack face-to-face interaction lose the ability to read other people’s emotions or recognize facial cues.[4] Surveys on the use of smartphones show that we’re texting and using social media more, even during mealtimes and in the bedroom.[5]  And one study conducted by University of Michigan psychologist, Ethan Kross, found that social media use makes us lonelier and less social.[6] The more we rely on technology to connect, it seems, the less connected we feel.

Of course, every new communications technology, from the printing press to the telephone, has been demonized. As Ericsson’s history of the telephone in Sweden states:

“The greatest fear, however, was that the telephone was in some way able to attract evil spirits, or at least thunder and lightning.”[7]

People will always look for something to blame for worrisome trends and changing norms. As always, new tools and technologies are neither good nor bad, how we choose to use them determines their ultimate effect.

The Right Communications Mix

Ideally, we can benefit from the convenience and ubiquity of these most recent communications technologies without losing the value of more personal modes of communication. The following table[8] offers one perspective on the respective value of electronic and verbal communication.

Information Technology/E-ToolsPowerful Verbal Communications
Speaks to the head

Quick and efficient

Impersonal and tone-deaf

Convinces with facts and analysis

Easy to send negative/angry messages

Broadcast to large groups

Provides background and updates

Engages the heart

Establishes mutual interests

Builds emotional/personal connections

Inspires with stories and examples

Addressing tough issues with courageous conversations

Strengthens teamwork and engagement

Builds involvement and ownership

Source: The Clemmer Group

Every form of communication has its benefits and trade-offs. And certain situations are better suited to one form or another. The research community offers some additional help when it comes to determining your own ideal balance between electronic and personal interactions.  The hierarchy of richness depicted below suggests:

 “…that the richer communication channels be used for those conversations that involve ambiguous issues or have potential for conflicts. Written communication is better suited to information sharing in a timely manner.”[9]

Heirarchy of Richness

Source: Hierarchy of richness (Daft, Lengel, and Trevino; Connaughton and Daly; Poole and Zhang), cited in Lynne Siemens, The Balance between On-line and In-person Interactions

Bringing Your Best Communications Game

Whether you lean toward high-tech communication or prefer the complexity of high-touch interaction, being an effective communicator requires both. Just as you wouldn’t bring a knife to a gunfight, or a baseball glove to a football game; you can’t bring your best communications game to the table unless you select the right equipment.


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[3] P.J. Manney. Is Technology Destroying Empathy? (Op-Ed).

[4] Amy Morin. Is Technology Ruining Our Ability to Read Emotions? Study Says Yes

[5] Is Social Media Actually Making us Less Connected?

[6] All the lonely Facebook friends: Study shows social media makes us MORE lonely and unhappy and LESS sociable

[8] Jim Clemmer, Communication Confusion: Balancing Electronic and Human Connections.

[9] Lynne Siemens, University of Victoria. The Balance between On-line and In-person Interactions: Methods for the Development of Digital Humanities Collaboration.

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