I just started the podcast S-town, put on by the producers of This American Life, and Serial. It’s come up several times over the past few weeks, most recently when my wife recommended it to me this morning. So I gave it a listen.
In the first episode, the host describes an exchange he had with a listener over the past year or two. It started with emails alleging that something was afoot in a small town in the South.
Eventually, one of the stories is corroborated, and the reporter takes the bait. Upon contacting the listener to get more details, he gets a response: “I would like to talk to you by phone if possible. This is just too much to type.”
When does something become “too much to type”? And why? What conversations necessitate a phone call instead of an email?
I’ll state my bias right up front: I communicate all day long via text. Email, text message, slack, etc – the vast majority of my interaction with other humans – personal and professional- is via text. Text is powerful. In the right hands, it is precise and exact, and ranges from emotionally charged to strictly factual.
So when I hear “This is just too much to type”, I hear “my thoughts are unclear, and I’m interested in having you listen to me ramble”. By the way, my fears are immediately confirmed on the show when the listener launches into descriptions of his mothers dimentia, and the number of stray dogs in the callers house, and town more broadly. You can get away with rambling on he phone, or in person – but in text? In text you don’t have a monopoly on my attention. I can scan ahead, to look for when or if this tangent will wrap back around to the reason for us communicating. The inability to do so means you can hold me hostage indefinitely, or until I’m so annoyed I’ll interrupt.
Speaking on the phone or face to face is far higher bandwidth than text. This is generally touted as a blessing, but let’s consider it more thoroughly, with some examples. Have you ever wondered why salesmen always want to “schedule a call” or meet in person? Why do door to door salesmen still exist, in an age where communicating with anyone without leaving your desk is simple and ubiquitous?
The added bandwidth gives whoever you’re talking to a wealth of information about you (are you nervous? Timid? Eager to please? Uncomfortable with confrontation?), plus an array of tools to use against you to get you to agree. Remember chad? He sold us a standing ovation we didn’t want, but he could only do so because we were in the same room.
For these same reasons, often text is the wrong answer – it is harder to communicate emotion, to foster a connection over text. When I call my kids because I miss them, I want to see their faces, i don’t want to send a text.
But don’t tell me that you need to meet face to face or on the phone to schedule a meeting, or discuss something. Text fits the bill just fine, thanks.