In defence of email and SMS

By on 27 Sep 2011

I love email. I love SMS. But I hate, hate speaking on the phone. And I‘m sure I’m not alone here.

It’s not that I don’t like talking to people nor that I avoid big conversations, I just don’t want to do it on the phone. There seems to be a long term belief that if you want answers, develop relationships or efficiency you pick up the phone and have a chat. I don’t subscribe to it. It doesn’t work for me. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, the phone is disruptive. If your phone rings, you feel compelled to stop whatever you’re doing and answer it. You can let it go to message bank but that means you just have to call back later and then you’re the disruptive one. The phone will ring when you are in the middle of a complicated spreadsheet, out at dinner with friends or changing a nappy – don’t even get me started on the real estate agent who called me at 7:30pm last Saturday night when the Broncos were going into a golden point. It’s a pretty rare moment that you are sitting around hoping that someone will call right this second. It’s usually disruptive. However, an email or an SMS can be answered at everyone’s convenience.

This brings me to distraction. Being slightly fidgety and a victim of information overload, it’s rare that I will just talk when I’m on the phone. I’ll usually be reading something on my desk, navigating peak hour traffic or chopping onions at the same time on my phone. Life’s too short just to talk when you can be doing so many other things at the same time! Suffice to say, I often miss key parts of conversation when I’m on the phone (which can then lead to another slightly more tense phone call). When writing an email or SMS, you give it attention and move on.

And then there is the routine. How many times do you do the niceties on the phone (“how was your day”, “what are you up to” or “how’s this heat!”) without really listening to the other person’s answers because you are really just asking about one specific thing? I do it all the time. I may just want to know if they can shoot a document through, ask if they can make it over for dinner or confirm an appointment, but there’s a whole bunch of mindless small talk (that neither enjoys) before you get to the purpose of the call. And I think this small talk is just to compensate for the disruption the phone call has caused! Not needed in email or SMS.

My last point is memorability. Read me out a shopping list, detail a budget or even supply an email address over the phone and I’ll forget it before I hang up. This may be a personal problem but if it’s in an email or SMS I’ll never forget. Conversations are recorded for future reference and things get done correctly the first time.

Phew, that felt good.

So do I use the phone? Of course. My grandma hasn’t got the internet or a mobile yet, I answer important calls from people who prefer to use the phone and there are some people far away that I like to hear their voices. Anything task based can be done with email or SMS but you still need face-to-face conversation to truly connect. And that’s my point. I like hearing people’s voices but would rather do it in person. Instead of spending a disrupted, distracted, routine and forgettable half hour on the phone, my preference is to catch up in real life. Of course, I’ll arrange this catch up via email or SMS but hey, I won’t waste any time doing it.

What do you think? Confessions of a phonophobe or a genuine communication trend?

Nathan Bush is BCM’s Head of Interactive Strategy

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About the Author

Nathan Bush has written 39 posts on BCM: Two Cents.

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Nathan Bush

As an Interactive Strategist Nathan has a keen eye on all things social media and mobile. He has 5 years experience in full service advertising agencies, within media, strategic and digital divisions. After establishing himself as an all rounder with a lighthearted industry blog, Nathan went into early blog retirement in 2010 to focus on the 140 character version of the game. Yes, Nathan loves sport - (go Manchester United and Canberra Raiders!)

15 Comments

  1. Matt says:

    FINALLY!!!

    The “you need to speak with people on the phone because it’s more personal” mantra is dated. The phone still has its time and place, but when you can order a pizza without ever having to speak with someone, I think the phone has lost some of it’s relevance.

    I have also yet to find a satisfactory way of poking someone over the phone.

  2. Sarah says:

    One could debate that email & SMS are just as disruptive as a phone call. How many people simply can’t resist checking their email even more than before given the access that smartphones provide? As for multitasking, here I sit in a conference, checking email, twitter, listening & responding to this blog post. I actually think the proliferation of access to comms mediums makes it even more important to talk to people either in person or over the phone, so much can be read or misread in an email fired off in a hurry. I’m not sure either that one can build relationships via email or SMS alone, so having some “human”? contact can’t be bad, surely??

  3. Kevin Moreland kev says:

    Ok…I’ll bite.
    My comment? Beware about being absolutist on this issue. Email, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and telephones all have their place.

    On the matter of the humble telephone, occasionally the nuanced ‘tone of voice’ which is delivered by this old piece of technology, aids both the quality of understanding and communication because it provides context around the words being spoken. It also offers instantaneous ‘real time’ and two way interaction.

    However I agree for those who have a short attention span, or are hopeless listeners then avoiding the phone is probably a good idea. You see the person at the other end usually senses this.

    I also reckon if the phone had been developed after the release of the myriad of text-based communication we’d be heralding it as an amazing innovation.

    (There you go Nath. I took the bait! But great post anyway!!)

  4. Jo Stone Jo Stone says:

    OK Nath I’ll bite too. I love email, SMS etc as much as the next person- it is great for so many things. But I challenge you to make the deal, persuade someone to give just a bit more than they intended to, or to extricate yourself out of a sticky situation via email. When it really counts, I pick up the phone!! Great post though!

  5. Angie Hancock Angie Hancock says:

    I couldn’t agree more Kev…………………so………………. no more pleasantries for you on the phone now Nath!
    pangie
    x

  6. Jeff Smith jeff says:

    You’re grandma is soooooo 1949.

  7. Jesse Richardson Jesse says:

    Nope, I’m with Nath… well, for the most part. Whilst I can see the benefits of phone calls for closing deals or avoiding misinterpretation vs email etc, face to face is even better than phone calls for this purpose, so it’s something of a false dichotomy.

    My suggestion would be that text-based mediums should be considered default courtesy internally for a business and amongst friends, whilst phone calls should still be considered relevant for external communications when it matters. I don’t think we need to be absolutist, but I do think that the phone is becoming increasingly irrelevant and disruptive for the reasons Nath mentions.

  8. Nathan Bush Nathan Bush says:

    Some good bites! And fair points as well. There’s no way that the phone is obsolete I just think it should be used very sparingly. In terms of closing important deals or discussing important matters I think it can be OK provided that there is no opportunity to do it face to face and both parties are interested in the conversation (see Lisa’s post for how outdated phone marketing is and my real estate example).

    If both people are comfortable with the phone it will be productive. But what we’re starting to see is a new breed of communicators who are becoming natural in conveying meaning and tone of voice in the written word. You’ll have more luck convincing these people using mediums that they are comfortable with. Interesting discussion!

  9. Giulianna Stead Giulianna Stead says:

    Hi Nath

    I think everything has it’s place, and when used for good and not evil, each medium can be used with great effect.

    Perhaps you could start your phone conversation with a simple – “do you have time right now to chat with me about…” I find it gets attention and it relays a respect for that person’s time. Once you do this for a while you will find that people will start to ask you the same question, at which point you can say – sorry, I’m a bit busy right now, but I want to give you my full attention, so can I get back to you?

    If that’s too much for you here are a few little conversation starters you can keep by your phone for when you don’t feel like coming up with your own pleasantries.

    How are you?
    How was your weekend? Did you do anything interesting?
    Do you have something fun planned for this weekend?
    How ’bout those Broncos?

  10. Beveridge says:

    Read an interesting infographic the other day, the major use for iPhones is texting at around 17% then calls at around 15%. Texts allow for flexibility of response. Calls are like someone walking in to your office say, “I need to talk to you right now stop what you’re doing I dont care if you’re on a roll I need to talllllkkkkkkkk”. Texts and e-mails allow you to finish what you’re doing, think about a response and then reply when needed. And we all need a little more time.

  11. Anthony says:

    I completely agree, I really do dislike voice calls and I personally prefer to be able to respond when it suits me. Voice calls are too immediate, and disruptive.

    Apparently this isn’t a small trend either, last week a report (it was from Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project) come out of the states, and it seems that 31% of adults over there prefer SMS contact to voice.

  12. Deb says:

    You know, Nath, if you cut all that small talk out of your blog, you could probably have got it down to a sentence or two! LOL!

  13. Tara says:

    Oh my! Personally, I don’t think this is a new ‘debate’ at all… What we’re really discussing here is one person’s preferences for mode of communication and retention of details, and other people have contributed their preferences. Research continues to suggest that different people happily receive and absorb (or indeed ignore) information differently according to their perceived relevance of the medium and their relationship to the communicator of the message. In other words – do your research if you’re wanting to talk to consumers and compel them to act. If you’re wanting to communicate with Nathan, then pay attention to the preferences stated in his post. And if you want to discuss something with me, give me a 5 min phone call rather than an elongated bitsy poor substitute for a conversation via text message for 5 hours during my working day when I have other things I want to move on to. See, all about one’s preferences :)

  14. Angie Hancock Angie Hancock says:

    Re Jesse

    Who’s got a false dichotomy?

  15. Jo Stone Jo Stone says:

    I actually think this is a generational discussion. The recent US Pew research mentioned by Anthony says 31% prefer SMS to voice, but for teens it is 71% who prefer SMS to voice (good infographic http://mashable.com/2011/07/02/texting-teens-infographic/). For me it is voice when I value the relationship and it is important, and happy for text based communication otherwise.