How Cellphones Can Destroy Communication

I have a love-hate relationship with my cellphone. For one it seems to love annoying the hell out of me, certain problem people or work issues seem to now find it easier to hunt me down when I try hide and I find myself acting like a crack addict needing their hit when I regularly sneak peeks at my BlackBerry for the next message. True, as much as I hate it at times my little bastard CrackBerry like most other cellphones has gone from useful to critical in helping people communicate efficiently and effectively in this day and age. Yet the caveat here is that people need to realise that there is actually a trade off of good and bad with all technologies when we embrace them. The cellphone itself is a prime example of this and it can counter-intuitively also contribute to the deterioration of communication between people if not used in a balanced manner.

Consider how the ability to share electronic documents via cellphones is increasingly critical requirement in the modern world and productivity in the workplace, especially when it comes to the ability to receive one’s email via a BlackBerry. Yet when it comes to getting some sleep you can be doomed to be kept up most of the night and forced to join the zombified sleepless masses shuffling to work the next day if your socially inept (or insomniac) boss believes it means you’re always on call, including at 11pm at night.  Never mind poor productivity the next day in the office.

Cellphones’ ability to send messages or make updates to electronic facilities is also immensely useful, yet many wonder why SMS communications carry none of the effectiveness of actual contact or even the ability to encourage the romance that Baby Boomers reminisce about . The fact that such messages can be composed quickly and are often poorly done is commonly believed to be the reason but there is another. First it’s necessary to highlight how Albert Mehrabian observed as far back as several decades ago that only 7% of the impact of a message is in the actual words, with 38% coming from the voice. The clear majority – namely 55% – is from the non-verbal and includes aspects like body language, expressions and gestures.

Yet when we use our phones to Twitter, make Facebook updates, SMS or reach out and touch someone through BlackBerry chat we’re immediately surrendering 93% of the impact and emotion of our messages from the start and which no number of emoticons can help rectify. It’s even worse for some: with accountants 99% of the impact is surrendered from the start but unfortunately we can’t help doomed souls like those given that they’re also like that in person.

Even making a phone call or using Skype on your phone loses 55% of the impact of messages and the non-verbal.  Guys take note here especially. It’s also a reason why your lady will likely stay upset with you for missing that anniversary arrangement even when you did your level best to Skype her.

When it comes to live global news updates through our phones we’re also quickly and more easily aware of earth shattering events from around the world like terrorist actions, mass civilian casualties, huge natural disasters and market crashes even when we’re nowhere near a television. Yet if that isn’t properly managed, the small pinging sounds from one’s cellphone or itchy fingers one feels from needing to keep up to date with what’s going on around the planet can quickly turn a relaxing outing into a stressful day. Worse, a much looked forward to dinner date into a dinner table fight with loud comments about each other’s sexual history in a busy public area.

Linda Blair from the University of Bath has also all noted in a study that our brains are sub-consciously incapable of conceptualising the distance or effect of such events.  As a result the brutal images from thousands of kilometres away in places like Iraq and Afghanistan which we see on our 3G capable cellphones are taken by our subconscious brains to be a mere kilometre away and we need to do something about it! Your brain also doesn’t understand how that huge market crash that shreds your share portfolio doesn’t mean you’re going to be going hungry that night or anytime soon.

It’s important to realise though that this isn’t some grand clarion call to reject technology, throw your cellphone away and run naked into the bush to drink unicorn giggles and find some poison ivy to hug. Especially given that cellphones are here to stay until the next tech revolution arrives to displace them. What it does mean though is that there is a time when they should be switched off and certain technological benefits taken in moderation, such that one doesn’t need to post ironic Twitter updates about their sudden individual bout of anti-technology rebelliousness.

  • Amy

    Instead of using cellphones as a substitute (for personal contact and group interaction for example), we should use it as a complement. Something that helps us be more efficient.

    on the 7-38-55 rule, a quote from wikipedia:

    “This “7%-38%-55% rule” has been overly interpreted in such a way, that some people claim that in any communication situation, the meaning of a message was being transported mostly by non-verbal cues, not by the meaning of words. This generalization from the initially very specific conditions in his experiments is the common mistake made with regard to Mehrabian’s rule. On his website, Mehrabian clearly states:

    “Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking. Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like–dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable. Also see references 286 and 305 in Silent Messages – these are the original sources of my findings.””

    A great majority of our texts/emails have nothing to do with emotions or feelings. They’re purely factual, so the 7% is all that is needed to convey 100% of the meaning.

  • Wayne Wides

    I have to disagree. It’s not difficult to find additional supporting evidence to support the fact that the majority of meaning comes through non-verbal communication which is lost through mediums like the cellphone. Take the anthorpologist’s Ray Birdwhistell’s kinesics where he estimates over 65% of communication is done non-verbally. Perhaps Mehrabian’s qualification as per above does raise a point against my use of his breakdown, but even then I don’t see my point as being curtailed.

    Take the written word in business too. There it’s known that email is the worst medium to communicate ideas, concepts, lay down the law to juniors/reporting staff or get management buy in into projects among others. Emails, even well written ones, are also forgotten quickly but a charismatic, confident and energetic presentation wins people and two people with markers at a whiteboard with gestures and vigour are more productive than a keyboard basher. Business is regarded as cold and empty when it comes to writing but even plain facts are also just not enough is business or at the negotiating table, nor for that matter when courting someone or influencing friends softly. How many SMS’ or emails do we recall over time?

    Even from my anecdotal experiences, when I wrote on forums very technically correct and strong arguments in the past few seemed to be swayed by what I wrote. But if I spoke verbally and displayed confidence and life in my presentations or conversations and people changed their minds and remembered me. It’s been the same the other way around too.

    To be blunt, I also believe in it personally as even my own love life improved when I sought to leave SMS’ and the like behind and tried be warmer directly, realising that people themselves are not automatons concerned (solely) about facts – because I myself was guilty of functioning with that mindset for years and it completely failed me.

    I’m also not a fan at all of things like Facebook when it comes to personal relationships with men and women alike. I also believe even a done up personal page tells me little about the person compared the warmth of a simple smile, laugh or gesture – and once again I was guilty of this myself. People preferring short SMS’ away from the workplace also have begun feel insulting to me personally and I’ve tended to shy away from women who preferred to communicate in that fashion as I’ve found myself concluding they’re not interested, possibly that they themselves are ‘cold’ or that they lack confidence. I’ve again also seen it with men who behave that way to women.

  • Amy

    I think you misinterpreted my point, which was: SMS/emails could also be used for purposes which do not require any emotional or non-verbal expressions. e.g. arranging when and where to meet for lunch, sending out reminders, keeping everyone on the mailing list up to date with job openings etc. Things which are purely factual can be effectively communicated even though the content only has the 7 in the 7-38-55 rule.

    I’m not saying emails should be used as a formal business presentation tool and I doubt that anybody actually does that. I’m not saying that an argument done via forums is better than a face to face debate. I’m also not saying you should start a completely virtual relationship with a facebook friend. What I am saying is that sms/email is perfect if the communicator is not talking about feelings, attitudes, persuasive arguments and the like. So it’s misleading to propose that the 7-38-55 rule is all-encompassing when it really only applies to a subset of communications.

  • Wayne Wides

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that I misinterpreted your point when it comes to the matter of communicating facts.

    I just am not impressed with a lot of finance and IT people I’ve watched, who seem to hide behind their computer screens and Facebook accounts or their cellphones becomes their lovers. They’re the ones falling into the mistake of believing that that sacrificing 50% of the impetus behind communication is worth the saftey of not actually having to speak to people.

    Again, I admit I’m quite strongly against that behaviour because I myself fell into that trap for a good while until life quite literally knocked me out of the rut.

  • Let me say at the outset that I feel this article was well needed and the subject matter is an area that society would do well to address with some fervent debate. In that vein…

    I have a number of reservations on the position taken by this article. The most pressing of which is the suggestion that mobile phones (can) destroy communications rather than inept users who were most likely inadequate communicators prior to the introduction of convergent communication platforms to their lives.

    I am equally unimpressed “with a lot of finance and IT people… who seem to hide behind their computer screens and Facebook accounts” but for different reasons. I would suggest that if it were not computers they were hiding behind it would be something else. I would go further in fact and say that in a number of cases mobile phones and social or business networking platforms have led to many such individuals becoming more socially engaged and becoming more communicative than they would otherwise have been prior to such devices/platforms.

    The idea of zombies up late at night, enslaved to an electronic device illustrates more the existence of an immature user than a divisive technology. Such individual are indulging in divisive behaviors of their own making. Few people accomplish much without common sense and a bit of discipline. If we’re talking about ‘adults’ here – not prioritising tasks, not ring fencing behaviors, thinking that not reaching someone via skype is an adequate ‘excuse’ for standing one’s girlfriend up on an anniversary, having a dinner table fight as a result of ‘facebook anxiety’ – lets be serious – communication would be improved more by court ordered sterilisation than curtailing mobile phone use.

    In business like in life, email, sms, IM etc are communication tools. Outcomes are proportional to inputs and if the communication input is inept and the source an immature user one needn’t expect much to come of this. An appropriately, correctly composed email can convey and achieve considerably more to investors, stakeholders and colleagues than a badly delivered or poorly composed power point. There’s a saying about workmen and tools…

    There is etiquette, common sense and methodology to using converged media or isolated communications mediums. A skilled user knows when to use what and how and is able to convey tone and communicate fully within those mediums while understanding their limitations. Bad communicators are just that, bad communicators. One doesn’t have to be good at communicating by way of all media but decent communicators don’t make use of mediums with which they are inept for critical discourse. They also have the common sense to appropriately favour the medium with which they are most comfortable. Furthermore I’d suggest Linda Blairs subjects are on the extremely lower end of the IQ scale – this again is a user issue not a platform limitation. IT helpdesk staff (who seldom emerge from behind their PCs or facebook accounts) have a saying for certain type of support call concerning ‘technical issues’ that some users have – called a PICNIC issue. It stands for Problem in Chair, Not In Computer.