I keep hearing that digital communication has made us more connected but I don’t completely agree. Instead, I think digital has made us feel like we’re more connected and always available, but it is actually a self-imposed digital exile. For example, by reading my Facebook news feed, I get the sense that I am staying in touch with friends, but I talk to them just as infrequently. This is great for acquaintances and old contacts, but for friends and key business customers, social media, email and texting can be an alluring excuse to avoid actual human contact.
This can have implications both personally and professionally. When it comes to business, many companies focus intensely on how efficiently they can communicate with their customers and vendors. It is easy to dash off a group email or tweet about company changes, but it can also be perceived as impersonal depending on the message. Some communications, especially to customers, needs to have a personal touch.
Here are a few strategies I use to combat this tendency:
I pick up the phone and call people daily. Digital calendars, email and task lists are artificial barriers between us and other humans. This goes beyond my personal contacts list and extends into StartupNation as well. I upgraded my office phone system to the Syn248 business phone system from AT&T so that my entire office could do the same thing – talk directly to clients as well as our company-wide network of associates and advisors. A company can often think that it knows its product best and that people who don’t buy just “don’t get it.” Again, the lesson here is to listen.
Breakfast and dinner meetings occasionally fall into work territory, but lunch is a consistent piece of the workday. I try to use this time productively, which doesn’t mean just taking meetings or answering emails to further my business. Eating and gathering around the proverbial hearth has always been a social occasion for humans, so when I end up sitting at my desk eating alone, I am giving up an opportunity to reconnect with someone and throw more capital into my various social bank accounts. Business lunch, friendly lunch, group lunch, all are better than a solo lunch in my book.
These take time and, in the face of email, seem like a huge pain. However, it is exactly because of this that the cost/benefit tradeoff is overwhelmingly tilted in your favor if you do take the time to put pen to paper. Whoever receives it, even if the letter isn’t very long, will smile and get the warm feeling inside because, instead of just opening your email, you sat down and took the time to remember their physical address. Plus, who doesn’t love getting mail? I try to write one letter a week.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Facebook, email and Twitter because their existence means I can quickly send a message and learn things from colleagues that I otherwise would never have known: articles from magazines I don’t read, YouTube videos I would normally miss and obscure birthdays I would usually neglect. Yet these digital forms of communication – social media and the rest – are placebos for real human interaction. They give us a similar feeling but they do not deliver the same results. Digital communications cannot replace good old-fashioned human-to-human contact, such as simply picking up the phone, inviting a friend or colleague to lunch or dropping a personal hand-written note in the mail.