Lost in Translation

Are the very digital tools designed to enhance communication actually making us worse communicators?

Back Longreads Apr 10, 2018 By Jeff Wilser

I prefer to text. It’s easy, quick and it saves me the hassle of having to actually, you know, talk to someone.

Yet I realize that not everyone’s a texter, so to accommodate other communication styles, I’m happy to WhatsApp, Facebook Message, Instagram, Twitter DM or, for a more intimate touch, maybe send an email. But the idea of talking on the phone? Terrifying.

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I’ve become addicted to digital communication, and I know this has a cost. I’m less likely to catch up with a friend and talk for an hour, which hurts my relationships. I’m anxious when I phone an editor, which hurts my career.  Even the sound of my ringtone floods me with panic.

The good news for me — and the bad news for the world — is that I’m not alone. Various studies estimate that we check our phone somewhere between 80 and 150 times a day. While these magical gadgets allow us to stay hyper-connected, research suggests that as a communication tool, ironically, they blunt our ability to communicate. That matters in the workplace. “I see this with executives all the time, and they ask me how to manage all the information that is constantly coming at them 24/7,” says Michelle Payne, a Sacramento-based leadership coach and the CEO of See Strategies. This over-reliance on digital communication can impair the soft skills so essential to leadership and, without these skills, the entire organization suffers.  

Happily, this is a trend that can be reversed — but the solution will require less iPhone and more eye contact.

The Digital Demand

Most of us refuse to let go of our phones, even though we can all agree it’s annoying. A 2015 survey from Pew Research Center found that 82 percent of adults said that when people use their phones in social settings, it “hurts the conversation.” (Despite that, a full 89 percent admitted they, too, used a phone in their last social setting.) Even the presence of a phone can ruin the vibe. In one experiment, British scientists from the University of Essex arranged a series of conversations between adults; a test group had a cell phone on the table, the control group did not. People reported greater intimacy and higher-quality conversations without the looming distraction of the phone.

“We’re extending our limits to keep up with that influx of information, and a lot of it is junk. Our brain has a harder time processing it.” Dr. Hakan Ozcelik, professor of management, Sacramento State

But it’s not just our phones. A 2008 survey by AOL surveyed 4,000 users in the U.S. and found that just under half identified themselves as “hooked” on the communication mode — and that was 10 years ago. In 2015, the average office worker received 122 business emails a day, but that’s an average. Apple CEO Tim Cook says he receives 700-800 per day. How many times have you returned from a meeting to find 57 unread emails or 17 texts? You dive in and then, poof, there goes your afternoon.  

“All of this information is efficient, but it can lead to overload,” says Sacramento State’s Dr. Hakan Ozcelik, a professor of management. He gives us a thought experiment: Say you’re at a party trying to socialize. Even if you’re a social butterfly, you can probably only talk to 10 or maybe 15 people. More realistically, it’s probably five or six. This is a cognitive load our brain is good at handling. Talking to people face-to-face is what humans have done since we dwelled in caves and wore loincloths to the office. “Now let’s compare that with opening your inbox, and you’ve got 80 messages,” Ozcelik says. “We’re extending our limits to keep up with that influx of information, and a lot of it is junk. Our brain has a harder time processing it, just as our body has a harder time processing junk food.” He calls this dynamic “information obesity.”

Scrambling to process all of that junk is a chore for anyone, but the cost is particularly high for a business leader. Payne says executives now spend so much time on rapid-fire responses that they don’t have time to properly strategize. “Leaders are being paid to innovate, create and solve problems. This takes thinking time,” she says.

The Impact on Organization

An incoming generation of workers has never known life without a smartphone. For them, this soft-skill deficit may be even more pronounced, says Dr. Tim Elmore, the founder of Growing Leaders, an organization devoted to improving leadership skills in youth.

“Millennials bring so many great qualities and new perspectives, but when employers do a 360-degree assessment, they find that team members serving under them say things like: ‘I don’t think he likes me,’ or ‘He’s not good with people’ or ‘He’s awkward,’” Elmore says, attributing this to a cohort that, while competent in digital communication modes, is “not aware of how they come across to others in person.”

Elmore says writing skills can take a hit when one’s primary communication method relies heavily on shorthand (e.g. tbh, omg and brb). “Writing clear and professional emails is a skill employers look for, and often fail to find in young candidates,” Elmore says.

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Careful, though: This isn’t exclusively a problem of today’s youth. “In all honesty, I see all ages becoming ‘screenagers,’” Elmore adds. “Unless I work at it, I think I am less patient and less conversational than I was 10 years ago. Screens tend to make us lazy.”  

On top of that, exchanging information via words on a screen can be ineffective or even counter-productive. “Communication is distinct from just ‘exchanging messages,’” Ozcelik says. “Communication relies upon people using a variety of channels to create a shared experience.” Seventy percent of all communication is nonverbal — the subtle tilt of the head, a smile, a nod of understanding or a furrowed brow of confusion. “People think that if I send an email to someone, then whatever message I sent has been ‘received.’ That’s a big fallacy. There’s always room for error.”  

These mini breakdowns in communication can hurt an organization’s teamwork. Every good team is comprised of people who fit different roles.  Just as a baseball team needs to have a mix of sluggers, base-hitters and pitchers, Ozcelik says members of a business team typically fall into rolls of organizer, harmonizer, energizer, task-master and so on. “For the organizer role, technology is great,” Ozcelik says. “But that’s only one of the roles. How are you going to harmonize over text? How are you going to energize? If these roles are not being fulfilled, then people cannot get the job done.”

“Listening is the most strategic action you can take as a leader.” Michelle Payne, CEO, See Strategies

Even more damning is that for the VPs and CEOs, a reliance on digital communication can impair the ability to actively listen. Listening well is hard to do, and it can be tedious. We may not always find the other person’s thoughts that interesting. We have short attention spans. We get antsy. Real lousy listeners are inclined to interrupt and that, Payne says, “is a very big deal. People will stop sharing ideas, feedback and different perspectives. This creates a culture of silos, narrow thinking and the status quo.”

When the boss doesn’t listen, his or her employees start to feel like speaking up is simply wasted energy. “Listening is the most strategic action you can take as a leader,” says Payne, as leaders who actively listen are “tuned in to the overall energy of their company,” and can better detect clues on her employees’ judgments, values and feelings.

Fiddling with your phone — while in a meeting — is a special sub-category of bad leadership. “We all think we’re so subtle as we check our phones or watches for the latest text or email,” Payne says. “Yet everyone notices. And it says that whatever could be happening on my phone is more important than this meeting.” Then it gets worse. Later in the meeting, the phone-abuser will often perk back up, re-engage with the conversation and ask a question that was already discussed. “This irritates people, and slowly but surely erodes their leadership brand,” she says.

Digitally-Induced Isolation

Not only is digital addiction unhealthy for teams and leadership, it potentially hurts our emotional well-being. “Our brains are designed in a way that they need these non-verbal cues,” Ozcelik says. “And the cues are not being fed as much as they should. That’s not healthy.” When we are not receiving the non-verbal cues in real life, then we’re forced to seek them elsewhere. Guess where we get them? More screens. “You need to see a face and a smile, but instead of seeing that smile from a coworker, you get that smile from a YouTube video,” Ozcelik says.

In 2009, Dr. Tamyra Pierce, a professor of media relations at Fresno State, conducted a study of 280 teenagers, and found a correlation between social anxiety and a heavy reliance on texting and digital communication. While acknowledging the results are not necessarily causal, Pierce says “people believe that communicating via technology is less intimidating and more convenient … The more dependence one has on using technology to communicate, the less likely they are to communicate in person.”

And when they do communicate in person, they’re not as good at it. Specifically, they struggled with eye contact, starting conversations and handling conflict. “A majority of participants in my research say that they use technology to handle difficult situations and confrontations, instead of communicating face-to-face,” Pierce says, because it’s “less difficult” and “you don’t have to look at the person.”  

This, in turn, can make us lonelier.  That theory is supported by research like a 2011 study in Australia, which found that 42 percent of people who use four “channels” to communicate (like texting, email, Facebook, etc.) are lonely, compared to 11 percent who only use one communication channel. In a vicious cycle, loneliness can make us even worse communicators. “When lonely people have the opportunity to interact with someone, they start conversing in ways that really throw off the other person,” Ozcelik explains. “They either ‘over-disclose’ and reveal things they shouldn’t, or they ‘under-talk.’ And then they become even lonelier.” At Sacramento State, he has conducted research on loneliness for more than a decade, across both for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations, finding that when employees are lonelier, they are worse at their jobs (as judged by manager feedback), have lower morale and are less effective teammates.

That squares with a 2010 survey from Gallup, which found an inverse correlation between loneliness and job performance. “Just 30 percent of employees have a ‘best friend’ at work. Those who do are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher well-being and are less likely to get injured on the job,” the researchers wrote in their report. Loneliness can spike our levels of stress and boost the risk of Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and suicide.  In January 2018, the U.K. even established a Ministry of Loneliness. “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” Prime Minister Theresa May said at the time. The former U.S. Surgeon General described loneliness as an “epidemic” worse than obesity, and warned it had the same impact to average lifespan as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

So, in summary, too much digital communication can literally kill us, on top of hurting teamwork and our ability to effectively lead.  

The solution?

The obvious advice is to put down the phone. Payne advises her clients to turn their phones off in meetings, limit email checking to three times a day (good luck with that), and carve out at least one hour a week to strategize and assess the most important priorities of your business.

She also recommends doing something more realistic, and very simple, that will have an outsized impact on all of our non-verbal communication skills: practice active listening, which involves lots of patience and eye contact. “Start with the intention of listening at a deeper level, no matter how mundane or boring,” she says. “Notice how long it takes you to become distracted, then keep pulling yourself back to focus on the speaker.”

I tried this myself in my last business meeting, and I only lasted about 20 seconds before getting distracted. (Payne assures me this is normal.) “Listening intently for two minutes when you are not interested is a challenge. Make it a game to exercise the listening muscle.”  

Like any muscle, it gets stronger with more exercise. So the next time I want to catch up with a friend, I’ll skip the text or WhatsApp and I’ll suggest a meeting, face-to-face, just like our grandparents used to do.

(And by that, of course, I mean Skype.)