Those of us who were born before human ever landed on the moon remember a world without the internet, and those of us born only just before human landed on the moon can – just about – remember an early childhood without computers at all.
This is a mixed blessing. I still love the ease with which information is accessible. A few days ago, for reasons which now escape me, I looked up the lyrics to Howard Jones’ 1984 hit ‘Like to Get to Know You Well’. Once upon a time finding information like that would have been an afternoon’s trip to the library, with no guarantee of success. Of course the flipside of not being a digital native is that I am not infrequently utterly and completely stumped by the sort of IT challenge an intelligent primary school child could resolve within moments.
I also wonder whether not being a digital native gives one a greater awareness of the disadvantages of communicating digitally. Or that could be complete nonsense – it’s not as though digital natives never communicated successfully face-to-face, after all (up until March 2020 at least!) – but I might get a readable blog from the idea.
But here for what they are worth are some thoughts about the disadvantages of working digitally. Being aware of them can avoid some of the pitfalls – helpful for avoiding trouble in the workplace, and helpful too for navigating the on-line elements of a university experience.
- Written electronic communication doesn’t do tone of voice. If I was standing next to you (I’m talking theoretically – I’m not about to knock on your door) and said ‘You need to tell your boss about this’ you would get some very good clues from my tone of voice and body language to suggest whether I was angry, concerned, delighted, teasing, or something else. Without these clues it becomes more important to be clear. ‘You have done an exceptional piece of work and you need to tell your boss about this’ is hard to interpret as anything other than positive, whereas ‘This is a disciplinary offence and you need to tell your boss about this’ is altogether a different thing.
- By the same logic, assuming the worst when you receive a rude e-mail or other electronic communication is best avoided. Every now and then e-mail which I’ve initially thought to be quite rude looks on a second inspection just to be hurriedly written. Sending a rude response to a poorly written e-mail is harder to put right than disarming someone with a polite response to an e-mail which might or might not have been intended to be rude. (Of course there are circumstances in which an electronic communication is obviously rude, or – worse – offensive. Although often giving someone the benefit of the doubt is a good policy, I am not suggesting that a cheery response to something which is genuinely hurtful is necessarily appropriate.)
- Remember how easily e-mails can be forwarded. Let’s say you make a negative comment about a manager to a sympathetic colleague. She adds some comments of her own and forwards it to another sympathetic colleague. But the third colleague fails to see your original e-mail under the most recent comments, and thinking that the concerns are of a general nature, forwards the e-mail to the manager in question, who does read the entire e-mail trail. Oh dear – awkward.
- Consider other people’s workloads and priorities. A communication from a student which starts off ‘I’m sure you’re really busy and there’s no great hurry for this, but can I ask…?’ is – let’s be honest – much more likely to go towards the top of the to-do list than the one which starts ‘I asked you this question two hours ago and I haven’t yet had an answer!’ Ask any academic colleague how many e-mails they get in an average day and few will give an answer of any less than well into the hundreds.
- On-line workshops are harder than ever to avoid. They have many advantages, one of which is that if you find that the session is not what you had hoped for when you signed up, you can leave without disturbing anyone else. But bear in mind that this can make the workshop less beneficial for those who stay. If the organiser has sufficient bookings to organise break-out groups for, say, ten groups of eight people, and in the event has only enough attendees for ten groups of two people, this either deprives the remaining attendees of a discussion of the quality they were entitled to expect, or presents the organiser with a last-minute headache to resolve. Clearly if what is being presented is not at all like what you signed up for then you would have some justification not to see the event through to the end. Otherwise, events work better if those who have signed up turn up and see the event through to the end. Both presenters and attendees have had to move things on-line very quickly and with little warning, so are likely to be forgiving of any unexpected technical glitches.
There are probably many other scenarios too. From the technological point of view communication and engagement are easier than ever – but there is usually still human involvement too, and attention to that is as crucial now as it was when the discussion was about cave paintings.
If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it to them on-line.