I woke up in the middle of the night last night and remembered that I had received a text message last week that I hadn’t replied to. It wasn’t the first time this has happened lately. Text messaging is a very immediate means of communications. I almost always answer right away. However, if it is something I need to think about or check into and I don’t respond immediately, sometimes I forget. This doesn’t usually happen with email. With email, I have a system for replying, deferring, following up and keeping track of the tasks that come in. After I got up and wrote myself a note to reply to the text message, I started pondering the sheer volume of responsive communications channels that I attend to.
Let’s ignore, for a moment, the seemingly unlimited number of channels that feed us information: those old media and new media outlets that offer us a one-way pipeline of things we may or may not choose to absorb. Let’s just focus on interactive communications platforms on which someone can contact us and expect a reply. If someone needs something from me, they can contact me directly using any of the following:
- Calls to my office
- Calls to my house (Yes, I still have a landline, sort of, it is VOIP)
- Calls to my work mobile phone
- Calls to my personal mobile phone
- Voicemails on any of the above
- Text messages to my work mobile phone
- Text messages to my personal mobile phone
- Emails to my work email address
- Emails to my personal email address
- Messages on Facebook Messenger
- Direct messages on Twitter
- Messages on Viber
- U.S. Mail
- Fax (Yes, I still have a fax number.)
Those are some of the direct methods of contact. Here are some more passive ways that might be considering “making contact” and may be meant to elicit a reply:
- Posts on my Facebook wall
- Tags in a Facebook post
- Mentions by handle on Twitter
- Comments on my blog
Then there are the other social media accounts that I monitor on behalf of the Rio Texas Annual Conference. Sometimes people use these to make contact with the conference, and I am usually the one to get sure their message gets to the right place. These include:
- Posts on the Rio Texas Facebook Page
- Post on the Rio Texas Facebook Group Page
- Messages to the Rio Texas Facebook Page
- Tags in a Facebook Post
- Mentions by handle on Twitter
- Direct messages on Twitter
- Comments on RioTexas.org
Honestly, I am probably forgetting something.
How does someone keep track of all these?
In my previous work life, I saw the ease of contacting someone increase slowly. In my first radio job, my boss or co-workers could find me in the studio, call me at the station, call me at home or leave me a note. Listeners could call the request line or send me a note in the mail. Then I got an answering machine at home and voicemail at work. Voicemail quickly took off as a way to contact people that didn’t have to take place in real time. We used to exchange voicemails at times we knew people wouldn’t pick up their phones. Then came email. At first, it was a fantastic tool. It was helpful for staff members who worked together but worked at different times and in different cities.
In less than two decades, everything has changed. Except for one thing. We are still basically the same humans who managed these very limited communications channels 20 years ago. We haven’t grown a second brain or more ears and eyes to process more and faster communications. Our expectations of response have not been reduced. I seem to face a constant state of disappointment from people who are frustrated that I did not immediately respond to their call, voicemail, text, tweet, message, comment, tag, letter or email. And frankly, I am often disappointed in myself for not responding or find myself awake in the middle of the night remembering one more reply I need to make.
And I find myself on the other side of the equation, trying to guess which mode of communication will get through to someone. I find myself going through a progression of channels waiting for one to click. An email followed up by a phone call with a voicemail, followed by a text message, then a trip to their office where they say, “You should have tried me on Facebook Messenger. That is the only thing I check.”
So, is this bad? I don’t think so.
And I know labelling it as bad won’t change anything. Things have just changed. And, unfortunately, they have not changed completely or universally. Across generations and cultures, there are non-static norms that govern how we perceive communication priority. For some, not returning a voicemail the same day is seen as insulting. Others forget they have voicemail and just let their box fill up. Some corporations will now respond to a complaint by tweet 100 times faster than a phone call. Others set up a Twitter account and then forget they have it. U.S. Postal Service mail is still considering a means of legal notification. However, I know people who only get their mail from the box every two weeks. I have friends who return all emails within 24 hours. I also know respected, professional people who will say, “Oh, I just never get through all my email.”
So what are we supposed to do? I have no idea.
But, I do know we need to all realize that everything has changed. I think the only way to make all of this work is to be patient with each other and offer as much grace as we can muster. If someone doesn’t respond to us, or they seem impossible to get ahold of, let’s not assume they are rude, disconnected, or unprofessional. Let’s not jump to the conclusion that they don’t think we are important enough to respond to or are just ignoring us. Let’s not assume that the communications channel that we consider to be the standard is standard for them. And let’s try to realize that maybe, just maybe, they are totally overwhelmed and doing the best they can.
Have something to add? Share it in the comments below. Who knows, I might respond.