12/26/2012 01:07 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2013

The "E" in E-Communication: Electronic or Evasive?

Nothing says "Merry Christmas" like a new smart phone, tablet, or computer. Just look at the last few weeks' worth of print and TV adverts. It seems like everyone wants the latest technology to be able to send a cryptic message to friends, loved ones, and the rest of the wired world. E-communication -- this new-age form of communicating -- gets its name from using electronic means to transmit messages. I've come to believe that the "e" in e-communication stands for "evasive." The excitement of being able to communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime has morphed into an annoyance (think mobile user in the gym, restaurant, or elevator) or a means of electronic courage to communicate a message that in years past had to be face-to-face conversation. E-communication has enabled the evolution of a new breed of user -- one with little social skills or emotional intelligence. Let me share a couple of examples.

A few years ago, during my organization behavior class -- part of the evening MBA program for working adults, a student proudly proclaimed that she used email to let her husband know when and why she was upset with him. I was teaching the topic of assertive communication, extoling the virtues of -- and sharing frameworks and techniques for -- open, direct, assertive communication. My examples -- deciding whether to send food back at a restaurant, being "cut" while waiting in a queue and dealing with an absent or unproductive team member -- provoked engaged dialogue filled with personal examples of responses to similar situations and the reasons behind them. The general consensus was a belief that direct confrontation was often the best, if most difficult, approach. Yet, this female student was adamant that "her" chosen method worked. Hard to argue with the seemingly happily married student, so I segued to the next conversation with a "let's agree to disagree" or "just as there are different ways to lead, so too is the case for communication" type of statement.

Fast forward about five years. I'm Skyping with my daughter -- a freshman at a university on the East Coast -- and what I hear horrifies me. She tells me that the previous evening, one of her classmates came to her dorm room to study for an exam. He stayed until about midnight, and the entire time, her roommate, Lisa*, said nothing -- no mention of needing to sleep, no questions about when he might leave, not even facial expressions that could have been interpreted as discontent with the situation. The next morning, another female student living on the same floor informed my daughter that "I don't know if you know this, but Lisa has been tweeting about you." My daughter looked up Lisa's tweets, and identified seven that were posted during or immediately following the 90 minute study visit. "Could you please go to the study lounge? That's what it's for. I am SO TIRED. I would like to sleep because I have a test tomorrow." "I would like to go to bed. But there is a strange guy in my room." "As much as I love my roommate, this is the second time she had someone over late. I need to sleep!" The last two: "GOOOOOOODBYEEEEEE PLEEEEASEEEEE" and "I was getting legit pissed off" suggest my daughter's roommate was quite angry, but, and this is key, said nothing. In fact, after reading these posts, my daughter started a conversation with Lisa, and it went something like this:

Her: "Hey, I'm really sorry Peter* stayed so late last night. I didn't think he was going to be here so long."
Her roommate: "It's fine! No worries."
Her: "Well, again, I'm sorry if our studying kept you up late."
Her roommate: "It's no big deal. Don't worry about it."

Lisa had a right to ask my daughter to end the study session in their shared room, perhaps taking her into the hallway for privacy. Instead, by saying nothing directly to her, Lisa sent a different message: "have as many study sessions with friends in our room as you want.. .I don't mind." Is it any wonder that we find ourselves in sticky situations like this? Sure, we laugh about the co-workers in adjacent cubicles who email each other to see if they can go to lunch together. We frown over the texters who nearly plow into animate and inanimate objects -- which are clearly less important than the texts they're composing. And we are perturbed by others' lack of mobile phone etiquette. But when does "being connected" equate to "being socially inept?" How has using electronic forms of communication allowed us to abdicate responsibility for having direct, honest, and frank conversations when we need to? And worse, how do we respond to this phenomenon in ways that allow it to continue?

A few thoughts to start the conversation on how we might address this... What do you think?
1. Put yourself in the shoes of the recipient of the intended message. What method of delivery would you prefer? Easy or efficient doesn't always equate to effective.
2. Recognize that messages, posts, and emails have a semi-permanent life. Would you like this message printed, (re)posted, forwarded or even (re)tweeted?
3. Realize that most of us avoid doing things we think will be painful. But avoiding a tough conversation doesn't make the problem disappear; instead, it is likely to fester, create resentment, and become a silent wedge in a relationship. Practice the conversation first by writing it or role playing it with a trusted friend or colleague. Whether it's a public presentation or private conversation, a dry run helps increase comfort and confidence.