Looking at my to do list for the day, I see that I need to reach out to a few more people. Deep down I know that my conversations will be more effective and that my relationship with these people is likely to improve if I call them or talk to them in person, but I have a lot to do and it would be great to simply write a quick email and check those tasks off my list. So, hopefully I force myself to make a call, but often I succumb to the email or even a text message.
Dr. Sherry Turkle, a sociologist and clinical psychologist who teaches at MIT and author of the book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, says this is all too common: people (kids and adults) prefer to text rather than talk. Dr. Turkle believes this stems from a desire to send the perfect message in the hopes that we will receive the perfect response. However, when we text, we remove the opportunity for an open-ended discussion and spontaneous thoughts that further our understanding and encourage collaboration.
Eliot Spencer, a middle and high school school history teacher in Connecticut, has found that his students do exactly that. Anytime between 10 pm and 3 am the night before an assignment is due, Eliot receives several emails from students with questions regarding the assignment. While the emails are well-written, the responses to questions are not always easily explained via email. There can be more nuance to the answer than Eliot can give students in a email that asks for a black and white answer. According to Dr. Turkle, this turns the communication into a transaction instead of a conversation. The problem is that good ideas and learning do not come from transactions. That is where conversation and coming in to speak with the teacher is essential.
Dr. Turkle calls this quest for the perfect email and response part of the “edited life”. A perfectly worded email sustains a fantasy of perfection – you are not in a vulnerable position where you might accidentally let it slip that you are not perfect and do not know all the answers. It is also seen as a way to control time. As one person told Dr. Turkle, the problem with conversation is that it “happens in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say” (2016).
During conversations, we stumble. We pause. We take moments to think. We build relationships with the other person in the conversation. That takes time and can be uncomfortable. So instead we send emails.
The weird thing is that, according to Dr. Turkle’s research, “people don’t feel good” about texting instead of talking. They know what they are doing is wrong and will not have the effect they want (like I do), but they send the email anyway.
When I worked in finance, I had five bosses and collaborated with coworkers in offices across the country. That meant I had to be an expert communicator (and manager of expectations). Some of the best advice I got on the job came early on from one of my bosses (the one who worked in California): If you have a question for someone or need someone to do something for you, call them or walk over to their office and knock on their door. Most of the people in the office, he explained, send emails for everything, but work actually gets done faster when you have a conversation instead.
It is true. People better understand what you are asking of them when you speak with them. You also start to develop relationships with them. Then they like you more and are more willing to help you.
The same goes for teachers. You cannot underestimate that power of developing a relationship with your teacher. When your teacher knows how much thought you have put into an assignment because you spoke with her about it at length one day during your study hall, she will be more inclined to give you extra credit or let you do a re-write if somehow the paper came up short.
How do we encourage our kids to do this? It’s hard, but here are some suggestions:
- We role model it for them. Instead of emails, we make calls and speak with teachers in person. (Perhaps email or text to set up a good time for a quick chat first).
- We remind them when they say they haven’t heard back from a teacher that perhaps they should follow up in person after class tomorrow.
- And teachers can help by instituting mandatory “office hours” where students are required to sit with their teacher and have a conversation about a project or how the class (or even just school) is progressing.
When it is hard to pick up the phone and you are itching to send an email, try to remember: this will actually have a better outcome if I just pick up the phone and call this person. What is the worst that could happen?
Spencer, E. (2015). Personal communication.
Turkle, S. (2016). Being Human in the Digital Age. NYSCI: Spring for STEM: New York.