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The Medium Is Killing Your Message

Paul Reinheimer Feb 1, 2017 Culture

A year ago, while I was working elsewhere, I was chatting in Slack about a problem that I was mulling over. My coworker Kevin jumped in and gave me some advice. Kevin, a caring and compassionate person who had dealt with this problem before, had a few small tips for me. This was great advice from a knowledgeable team member who’d fought that battle before. I was lucky to get it, and yet deep down all I could do was feel my back going up against the wall and started to get annoyed. The medium was killing his message[1].

Kevin wasn’t the problem: Slack was. If Kevin had been sitting in front of me in an office or on a comfy chair, I would have had no problem with the advice he was giving me. I even tried closing my eyes and imagining him in that chair, smiling at me and giving me great advice, and I calmed right down. Then I opened my eyes and there in black and white was someone TELLING ME WHAT TO DO. It wasn’t working: my brain was being irrational and it was affecting my work.

So I told Kevin frankly: “You’re giving me great advice, but I’m having a hard time accepting it over Slack. Could we do a Hangout or something?” We hung out, talked about the problem I was working on and some solutions, and I stopped feeling my back going up the wall. Thanks Kevin!

I’ve worked remotely off and on since college. I think my boss at eDonkey and I chatted sporadically over AIM or ICQ or something. I worked remotely at php|architect (with IRC), Social & Scientific Systems (with Hipchat), and Stripe (with Slack). WonderProxy started with Will and I, living in two different countries, communicating almost exclusively with gchat accounts. I’ve worked remotely more than not over the last decade, and while I’d say my experience with Kevin was a rare occurrence for me, it certainly wasn’t the first time I’d had that kind of reaction, and it was probably the best I’ve handled it… normally there’s some sort of a death spiral with me and the other person just getting more and more annoyed at each other.

Humans have communicated face-to-face for thousands and thousands of years; Slack launched less than four years ago. There are some (debunked) stats out there claiming that 93% of communication is non-verbal… I’m not sure I buy it, we can accept that it’s a non-zero percentage. Thus, when we’re talking to people over text-based media, we should regard misunderstandings as both inevitable and expected. If you read only the even numbered pages in a book and ended up confused, you wouldn't be surprised. Mis-reading tone or intention in textual conversations is going to happen.

So, I’d suggest if you find yourself annoyed with a friend or coworker, change communication media, preferably to something with video and voice. There, you can see someone smile if they’re giving you a gentle jab, recognize that someone is nodding because you’re on the right track, and help your brain attach whatever message you’re getting to a human being, not a series of dark pixels. We’ve been writing about working remotely a bunch over the last month and I have as many strategies for productivity and thoughts about optimal lighting for home offices as the next developer who has worked remotely for the last ten years, but figuring out how to communicate with my coworkers when I rarely see them face-to-face has been far more valuable for me, and for my coworkers.

  1. Thanks, Mr. McLuhan. ↩︎

Paul Reinheimer

Developer, support engineer, and occasional manager. I enjoy working on new products, listening to customers, and forgetting to bill them. Also: co-founder.