Master Text Communication in the Workplace — Use Context

This post originated on the Visage Mobile Blog and has been re-posted with permission from Visage for use on the Concur blog.

Before BRB and LOL, there was ASAP and ATTN. Jargon, acronyms and initialisms have long been part of the corporate lexicon. With texting in the workplace on the rise among mobile workers who prize instant communications, the new language of Short Message Service (SMS) is sure to have a profound impact on how workers do their jobs and interact with each other.

For insights into how texting is changing the workplace — and the challenges it creates — we turned to Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. Nunberg’s advice to companies: communicate openly about your preferred modes of communication and include some context.


Are workers more likely to miscommunicate when they text? Why? 


When you text, there’s less contextual background. It used to be that writing took a while — you sat down with a typewriter or a pencil and you couldn’t get that far ahead of yourself. Each successive form of writing has made it more and more like speech in terms of the speed with which you can transcribe things. At the same time, the context that used to surround each form of communication is diminishing.

Why is context so important — and how does the lack of it impact the way we work? 

It means that deciding how to communicate something — a particular message — has gotten much more difficult. And deciding when not to communicate has become more difficult as well. The problem that we have is how to make the decision about what form we should use — phone call, email, text. Because there are more choices to make, it’s easier to screw up. It’s also easier to screw up because it’s taking less and less time to create the communication.

With texting in particular, we’re communicating through these tiny windows and everything has to be compressed, so there’s no context there. We’re expressing our thoughts very fast and in minimally redundant ways. Redundancy has always been very important in language — it’s what makes communication possible: if you miss it here, you get it there. So, it’s harder to mistake a 15 line email for passive-aggressive when it wasn’t so intended than a 30 word email because there’s more redundancy in there — you don’t have to make a whole series of mistakes about what it means. The shorter the communication gets, the harder it becomes to interpret. Everything in technology almost conspires to insure that miscommunications are going to be ramped.


How can a company minimize text-based miscommunication?


If I were the head of a company, I would talk about the way we communicate: when do we communicate, how do we communicate, when do we text, when do we email, when do we call, and when do we call a meeting? I think we all worry about this: do I want to email him or call him? But it isn’t something we make public in that way.

We often act on instinct and those instincts often betray us. You know, leaving a voice message for someone has been a strategic ploy for some years, but the idea of when you do that or when you don’t do that, or when it is appropriate and when it isn’t, is important to talk about. Not that there are hard and fast rules, but it’s a good thing to do — to get it out — so that people are aware of these differences and that they understand they are making significant choices.


Do you think abbreviations help — or hurt — productivity?


These acronyms are like high school. It’s a way to have your own language because you didn’t want to sound like the kids that graduated four years ago. That’s what you do in high school and that’s what you do when you work. If you want to distinguish yourself from other groups or you want to sound like you’re privy to some special kind of knowledge, using words that don’t explain themselves — this is what initialisms do — is a good way to do that. That function of language has always been, in a certain sense, at odds with communication.


As younger generations enter the workforce, will texting become the exclusive form of workplace communications?


I don’t know if there’s an answer and it’s going to depend on what you’re doing and who your colleagues are — how wired they are and so on. Young people still have to learn how to communicate in a business setting. You have to learn that what makes texting work is context. The more context there is, the less you have to say. If you lose the context, then things become ambiguous.

Photo credit: Jeffrey

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