Some thoughts on communication

Have you heard of #donglegate? Chances are good that you have if you are following tech sites (Slashdot, ArsTechnica, OSNews). Later on, other sites like Forbes has picked up the story and of course the blogosphere is full of entries (Amanda Blum, Adria Richards herself). I find the whole situation quite sad, all of this reminded me of something I learned a while ago.

A while back I was on a conference with my work colleagues. One of the parts of the conference was to improve communication skills between us, the co-workers. More specifically giving constructive and helpful criticism. I found it helpful and learned a lot that really should have been common knowledge or in some cases perhaps even common sense. It turns out that is not always the case, but that is another story for another time.

The woman holding the workshop said something that stuck in my head: ”If you express criticism to another person in front of a third party, you have some kind of hidden agenda.” (Freely translated)

Her point was that this kind of criticism was not meant to help the person you are giving it to, but rather show that third party something or publicly humiliating the one you claim you are criticizing. The type or criticism we were learning to use were quite the opposite, something to help the recipient.

But that statement sat in my head and I felt that it had an even broader scope. After having thought about it I rephrased it to:

If you choose to communicate with another person in front of a third party, you have some kind of hidden agenda or ulterior motive.

That motive might not be of malice, but still there is a reason to why you chose to communicate in public. This decision might have been done consciously but most of the time it is an unconscious decision and my point is that you should observe yourself when you do this and try to think of why. Try to make it a conscious decision.

An example might be wishing someone happy birthday on a Facebook wall post. Is there a reason to why you want other people to see that you are wishing someone  a happy birthday? Why couldn’t you just send a personal message? It is equally simple, the button for a personal message is right there, not far from the button for new wall post.

Some people might say ”why not?”. Perhaps you are not feeling that the type of forum matters, and perhaps it doesn’t matter that much. Still, you had a choice and you chose to use a more public forum.

Is it very important that other people see you congratulating someone else? Are you perhaps doing this more to show the world around you that you ”care” than to actually congratulating the recipient? How much do you really care then? Is this merely an opportunity to strengthen an image you are trying to build for yourself?

We are living in a world where more and more are done publicly, but we are manufacturing a facade, we are not doing everything in public. As a matter of fact, most people are very conscious of what image they want to convey. Also we are constantly being told that we must take care of our personal brand and we must market ourselves online.

In this world I feel that we are getting worse at communicating, especially one-to-one. When shouting out to a huge crowd, we are forgetting that each and every one of the recipients is a person. Often I see people writing things online that they never would tell that person to their face, yet they have no trouble saying it to them in front of everyone in their social network or everyone on a forum.

It is so easy to hammer away on the keyboard and press send. So easy that one often forgets to read through what one has written and try to imagine how the intended recipient might recieve the message. Just because the digital era allows us to communicate quickly and without delay, it does not mean we have to communicate like that all the time.

I prefer a well written letter to a quickly scribbled together incoherent one. In this day and age, having someone putting some thought and effort into their letter is something I appreciate. It shows that they care a little extra. They could have chosen the quick route, but chose to give me some extra time.

I think we should get better at seeing the recipient. Everyone wants to be seen and appreciated. And we should get better at choosing the right forum. In the wrong forum the message will not come across as intended. And if it isn’t important that it does, why did you bother sending that message in the first place?

I don’t claim this statement to be an universal truth, but I do find it useful in many different situations. And remember, no one is perfect. From time to time I find myself doing just the opposite of what I am trying to do. But it helps me to think about this every now and then.

In the case of donglegate, I am not sure what to think of the public shaming on Twitter. If it was just about stopping sexist jokes, I can think of a number of ways that would have gotten a much better result without the aftermath we have now seen. It has been blown out of all proportions.

From what I have seen so far, donglegate has only losers. If we thought a little more about the way to communicate, we might be more successful in the future.

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