Asked about his favorite thing in his office, Tim Swafford of Swafford Construction in Chattanooga said it was his telephone. “It’s the cheapest and most effective tool I own,” he said.
The question was part of an interview of Swafford as NAHB’s Remodeler of the Month to be published in the September issue of Qualified Remodeler, in case you were wondering if I routinely go around asking aimless questions of busy remodelers.
But I liked Tim’s answer. It addresses, I think, the frustrations and pitfalls I’ve observed resulting from over-reliance on technology like email and texting, not to mention attempts to communicate via social media. My response to tedious and imprecise emails frequently is: “Oh, for heaven’s sake (or words to that effect), can’t you people just talk to one another?”
There’s a lot to be said for having a conversation, if not face to face, at least on the phone in real time. Tone and inflection, for example, are preserved by the miraculous invention patented early and often by Alexander Graham Bell. Attempts at humor, irony or sarcasm – risky enough in conversation – are virtually assured to be misinterpreted in an email.
The telephone has one other enormous advantage over electronic communications in written form, and that is the opportunity for the person being addressed to immediately say something like “huh?” – short for “what the heck are you talking about?”
Now, the goal of any communication should be to avoid as many of these “huh?” moments as possible by clearly stating one’s fancies, but clarifications can be dealt with more quickly and efficiently in live speech.
Having to say “huh?” in an email is tiresome after a couple of times, and the digital interlocutors soon become impatient and give up if an answer isn’t readily forthcoming. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had telephone and face-to-face conversations play out that way, too, but it’s a less likely to be as onerous in a live conversation.
Further, it is an axiom of email communication that if you pose more than one question or make more than one point, the second one will invariably be ignored, overlooked or otherwise rendered invisible – making yet another email necessary. All of which might have been avoided by a phone call.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Phones have a downside, too. When they were first invented, telephones were viewed by some as evidence of the decline of civilization – and if you’ve ever been the unwilling auditor of a pointless conversation of a loud-mouthed cell phone user in a confined space, you may be excused for thinking civilization and decorum are indeed one step closer to extinction.
However, a little common sense can make the phone, as Tim Swafford says, an effective tool. For example, use it to actually talk to people. Don’t hide behind voice mail and phone menus. If you do that, you may as well stick to email.
If you must use these technologies, do not under any circumstances tell me to “listen carefully because the menu may have changed.” If I’m a first-time caller, I wouldn’t know or care if it has changed, so you’re wasting my time by telling me. If I’m a regular caller, I’ll already know that it’s changed and won’t listen anyway, so you’re wasting my time again. If I’m a some-time caller, I won’t remember whether it’s changed or not – so you’re still wasting my time. I already hate listening to the menu choices, so just get on with it if you must.
Congratulations if you’re smart enough to have a live person answering your phone, but you can still trip up and leave a caller to gnash his teeth. For example, always have the phone answerer offer to take a message. I know it’s hard operating a pencil and all while eating a doughnut, but try. It is not acceptable to say, “He’s not here, and I’m too lazy to take a message; can you call him back?” My simple answer is, “No, I cannot,” and perhaps some other more colorful words – or at least thoughts.