Communication that fails to make eye contact

The Monitor's language columnist is reminded that it's easier to send bits of data around than it is actually to communicate.

It began with the e-mail response a friend got from one of her representatives in Congress. She wasn't sure quite what to make of it; does he "get" what she's after, she wondered, a bit baffled.

She forwarded the note to me for a look. Nothing in the message convinces me that the aide who wrote it knows what you're talking about, I responded.

A little further research, though, conducted by live, truly interactive telephone conversation with a lobbyist knowledgeable on the issue in question, turned up the heartening intelligence that the member of Congress actually was on my friend's side. He had taken concrete steps in support of her position. But his message didn't quite convey that his team understood her question.

This episode was followed in short order by a string of other e-mail encounters in my little universe whose common thread was that the person on the other end didn't quite answer my question. And these others didn't have the politician's excuse for being cagey.

So much is done by e-mail so fast and so automatically that the ostensible main goal of communication – information exchange – goes unachieved.

Cases in point:

•Trying to check on the status of a subscription I had (I thought) renewed online, I had clicked through the "concerns or questions" link in an e-mail. The response came back quickly, repeating several points in the original "time running out" message that had prompted my query in the first place. But it didn't answer my question.

•When I clicked through the "for more information" link on an invitation to a local public meeting and asked how long the session was expected to last, I got a very prompt response – consisting of the retransmission of the original invitation. It didn't give a closing time the second time around either.

I'd almost rather see a message with an honest typo in it. Oops! Maybe I shouldn't say that! Maybe the people who create customer-service e-mail systems will start incorporating a feature that generates random typos. But until then, a typo is still an indication that an actual live human has responded to, if not necessarily read, my message.

A good public speaker may be addressing a vast audience but knows how to make eye contact so that his listeners feel he's speaking to them as individuals. A not-so-good speaker leaves his audience feeling he's looking over their shoulders at someone else.

Good conversationalists take the points of their interlocutors and repeat them in their own words, and move the dialogue forward. So do good debaters. This is the standard we should expect in our written communications, too.

Soon after the previous episodes, I was trying to reach at his office someone whom I hadn't been in touch with for years and whose e-mail address I didn't have. I found him online and saw I could reach him through the "contact us" form on his firm's website. But the form included one of those little boxes in which random letters and numerals float around like goldfish in too small a bowl. It's called a CAPTCHA, I find. I was supposed to type in the letters and numerals to prove I'm not some kind of bot.

But hey, I know I'm a live human being. It's you guys at the other end I'm not so sure about. I think I'll send a letter instead.

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