Communication Shadows

This post is a call to the computer professionals among us to be more aware about computer mediated communication issues:

Have you ever thought why email communication so easily descends into conflict? Is it something we should just accept and get on with? Or can we be rather more in control of the situation?

These questions have bothered me for quite a while now. I believe that we could become better masters of the situation. I present a working hypothesis in this article about what happens during a conversation. I first presented this as a “Lightning Talk” at ACCU2009 and was encouraged by the response which, along with some other subsequent insights, has prompted me to put pen to paper, or rather, fingers to keyboard. Some of the conclusions turn out to be fairly surprising.

Why Should We Care?
I start from the position that as technologists we should be more aware of how electronic communication media can affect human discourse. This becomes more of an issue because we are likely to be a reference for lay-people who have problems with such communication. The trouble is that although we are technologists, the questions raised are primarily psychological.

During a conversation, here defined as occurring between a number of people, (I don’t believe machines can converse, but that is another story) I suggest it is a very rare occurrence for us to talk directly to the “real” other person. We form an image of the other person and communicate with that image. It is then the reduction in the congruence of this image with reality that can cause problems.

It is this image that I call the “Communication Shadow” and it is formed by a combination of our own psychological projections and the various miscommunications and errors made by the other speaker. The greater the discrepancy between this Shadow and the “real” other person, the more chance there is that the conversation will descend into conflict.

The Available Media
So what does this have to do with computing? I have experienced that the various types of electronic communication media will affect human conversation differently. So lets look at some differing modes of communication:

1. Face to face
The best mode of communication we can experience, where we can continually pick up subtle cues: body language, facial expression, as well as the timbre of the voice. Of course it can still be difficult. Something I experience in married life! Even after many years I can still fall into some of the old traps, usually culminating in having the last words, namely: “Yes dear”. I am sure there will always be a job for counsellors. With face to face conversation the Shadow we are creating is (or should be) getting continually updated and modified to match the other person. Conversations in the bar can be hilarious just because we can laugh about how different the shadow image is from the real person, although usually the alcohol will help things move along smoothly.

2. Video and Audio
I have in mind the current set of video conferencing systems which are so useful for long distance communication. Although problems with the video/audio synchronisation can make for a stilted conversation, this mode of communication works very well. There will, however, still be missed cues. Though the image of the other person is important I think that what and how the other person speaks is a greater help in adjusting the Shadow image we have of them. But I would advise caution if you think that there are absolutely no problems with this medium. I have worked in the TV business for many years and know that many celebrities are very adept at promoting just the image they wish by video. The reality invariably turns out to be quite different.

3. Audio only
Usually telephone conversation, which has even more absent cues. Again, since we can hear the other person, it still can work well because we can adjust our Shadow image to make the communication work. I believe it is here where we can start to realise that we are creating a Shadow of the other person, especially if we have not met them face to face. Just remember how surprising it can be to see the person in the flesh after we had been forming a totally different image of them having only conversed by telephone.

4. Text only
The worst form of communication in terms of its ability to foster massively discordant Shadows. In ye olden days, people would take time over letter writing and would therefore ponder, peruse and pause in their thinking. But now we have the chance to “chat” instantly and isn’t that bound to be an improvement? Well, yes and no. Being faster can mean more mis-communication errors are made. On the positive side, the speed of interaction means that we can correct the error by further clarification, before the other person has a chance to ruminate and get too upset.

The Conflict Process
Lets look at a typical sequence that can occur during a textual communication:

  • Person A types some text and is just not quite careful enough, writing something which is ambiguous and just happens to “push the buttons” of a recipient. Needless to say person A is totally unaware of how their message is going to be received.
  • Person B sees what has been written and due to their temperament, and the ambiguity inherent in the message immediately gets offended and starts making all sorts of assumptions about person A. Person A, they think, is a complete and utter twit and needs to be told so in no uncertain terms right now. “How can they think of writing something so preposterous?”
  • So person B fires off a flaming response, usually starting the latest flame-war.
  • So what just happened? It is here where the idea of a Communication Shadow can be useful. What has happened is that person B very quickly created an image of person A, projecting all sorts of personality traits onto them, and then proceeded to communicate with that Shadow. From then on it may all be downhill as person A is likely to do the same with person B.

    Thus we end up with a conversation with 4 people in it! Person A is going at Shadow B and Person B is going at Shadow A. Anybody who can successfully manage and calm this conflict will usually do so by getting both people to step outside of the immediate arena, psychologically speaking, and see what is happening from a distance. If successful this can immediately help them realise that assumptions have been made. Unfortunately in my experience this rarely happens and the protagonists go their separate ways, convinced of the idiocy of the other person.

    The Point
    Now here is the key point of this article:

    The problem is not that this Communication Shadow exists…

    …it is the fact that we are unaware that it exists.

    If we are truly to enter into a more enlightened communications or digital age, call it what you will, then we must become more aware of the processes in which we are involved rather than solely the content of our communications.

    From my experience I can see that programmers may have more trouble communicating than non-programmers. I am not pointing this out as a bad thing, rather it is a side effect of the sort of work in which we are engaged. If you have to think complex structures or processes through in your head, stringing together a number of thoughts, you must reduce your communication overhead while doing so in order to maintain flow. Once you have reached a point where you have enough coherency within those thoughts, you can then communicate them to others.

    We therefore have to live in the two worlds, the inner world of thoughts, the very thoughts from which we create the software, and the outer world of our interactions with other humans, because you need a team to produce a finished product.

    So I hope that you feel that the idea of a Communication Shadow has some merit and may help you to be more reflective about future conversations. Just remember that using text or email is a lot like using powerful Unix commands when logged in as root, you need to check them 3 times at least before hitting the return key.

    [Note for non-programmers: A Unix command allows you to do most things through a textual interface. You don’t need a window based operating system. “root” is the system administrator username on a Unix system]

    2 thoughts on “Communication Shadows

    1. Even though I only have little, little ones, this was extremely encouraging for me to read. Writing is such a healthy, practical, and FUN hobby. I want to foster this skill in my children at an early age. Every night we tell our two year old stories, and all throughout the next day she tells them back to us and even elaborates upon them. We are creatures meant for stories, and writing is the way we get them out! Great post!

      • Hello Larbi,
        Thanks for your comment. Do I presume you may have meant to reply to this post on the Boundary Problem?

        I believe the storytelling you do – without any technological help – is fundamental to developing the imagination that is not just important for creativity but also for more technical work. I am working on this at the moment as I prepare for a science conference in Stourbridge where the ability to have good imagination is fundamental to good diagnostic skills. Surprising.
        All the best

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