You won't believe this. There's a technological marvel that, instead of forcing you to communicate with others in writing, actually allows you to hear other people's voices and words -- you can even hear the tone and volume of their voices! And wonder of wonders, they can hear you! Across any distance! It's incredible! Not many people use the device today, but it's truly in a class by itself for productive communication.
Please pardon the sarcasm, but the way people shun the telephone these days is getting ridiculous.
You used to be able to just call people. You didn't have to be on someone's calendar to have a phone conversation. The telephone was an important and valuable domain of communication, both for casual, friendly chats and for professional exchanges of ideas and information. But no more. It's considered annoying -- lame, even -- to pick up the phone and call someone without a prior appointment. It's too friendly. Too intrusive. If you did, you'd be considered a professional misfit. So instead, you send an email to set up an appointment for the phone call. About six or seven emails, actually. More words pass back and forth in the setting up of the call than are required for the communication for which the call itself is intended. And if each of you has an assistant, all this multiplies.
Much worse than the inefficiency of using email to set up phone calls are the missed opportunities and unnecessary misunderstandings that come when we use email instead of phone calls. That happens far more often than is prudent. We use email to avoid conflict. We use it to avoid feeling uncomfortable. To overcome shyness, inferiority complexes, doubts, apprehensions, and all manner of other psychological and emotional problems. In business, we use it to overcome our fear of selling. To make sure we're never caught off guard or put on the spot. Because it's just too much trouble to get up and walk two cubes over to ask a question in person. And we have convinced ourselves that this is all more advanced, more expedient, more productive.
But to the degree to which email allows us to avoid authentic communication or persuasive communication -- and robs us of the ability to get better at either or both -- there's nothing efficient or productive about it. I won't go on about how email messages can be misinterpreted -- we've all read way too many blog posts about that. But even those posts assume a context in which the telephone doesn't exist. They preach about being more sensitive to the way we write the emails, using emoticons to make tone plain, or rereading messages before we send them to scan for anything that could be taken amiss. Those posts never advise us to just pick up the phone and call the person. Doing so would eliminate the possibility of misconstrued text for sure, but it's never in the email tips lists.
And as we strive relentlessly for efficiency, we leave no room for life -- for the little things that balance out our day and put our business into a larger perspective of existence. There's no room for other human beings who have color in their voices and nuanced thoughts that typography cannot convey.
It has been said that love is a function of communication. I believe that to be true. I believe, by extension, that human understanding is a function of communication. And the better human beings understand one another, the higher the level of functioning. The overuse of email as an alternative to a call creates emotional distance. In advertising, it is said that the medium is the message. In this case, the medium is email and the message is "I don't actually want to talk to you." There is an unintended lack of civility, humanity and friendliness to it all.
A powerful side effect of this reduction in phone conversation is the near total elimination of the impromptu personal meeting. When I was a kid my grandfather would stop by our house unannounced for a cup of coffee. We'd have great conversations. That rarely happens in life anymore. It never happens in business. We've sucked all the spontaneity out of the workday, so we're forced to buy foosball tables and study "play" to get people into a mood where they can have a spontaneous creative thought.
If you want to be innovative today, if you want to take a risk, if you want to exercise your courage, try calling someone with whom you have an issue to discuss. Do it without an appointment. Just call them up and have a conversation. And when your phone rings, pick it up. Open yourself up to the possibility a phone call offers. Discover this remarkable device called the telephone. It will give you a serious competitive advantage.
This article originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review.