The More Ways We Have to Communicate, the Less We Communicate at All

We live in what should be a golden age of communication. At no time before, have there been so many ways to get in touch with one another. If I need to ask you a question, I can email you; text you; call you on the go; make a free international call via VOip programs like Skype; instant message you online; message you via a social medium like Facebook or Twitter; or in the most old-fashioned of mediums, send you a letter.

Not even 30 years ago, the only options to reach out to someone who you couldn’t see in person were to call them, or write to them via post. Either way, you had to pay to do either, and people generally picked up the phone, or responded to a letter.

Perhaps not coincidentally, as the cost of making a phone call became cheaper, the one way to screen and ignore phone calls — the answering machine — became more popular.

These days, however, it seems like most people ignore most of the messages they get in any medium. Emails are blocked or deleted as soon as they arrive. Texts are ignored. Instant messages are blocked. Facebook and Twitter accounts are only accessed irregularly, if at all. Phone calls go directly to voice mail. And mail go directly in the trash, unopened.

My work involves resolving concerns between buyers and sellers on an online marketplace, and if you ever wanted proof on how very little people communicate with one another these days, I have the anecdotes to prove it. Upon placing an order, the buyer has both the seller’s email address and phone number, to use in case anything goes wrong. And as life would have it, things do go awry. Packages are lost; sellers forget to ship a package on time; the wrong item is sent; or an item gets damaged in transit. This should be resolved directly between seller and buyer, and it is, but only when they can reach each other.

Communicating is now more impossible than ever, despite of — or perhaps because of — its myriad forms. Many an individual seems to have their email program set to turbo-block, in order to cut down on the incessant spam, newsletters, and mass-mailed office memos we are all cursed with these days. So when an email comes in from a stranger, especially if the subject line is “hi…” or “problem?”, it all too easily falls into a black hole. A few years ago, I had to intervene between a distraught buyer and seller, both of whom were apparently blocking each other. They copied me, I forwarded the message; the other person copied me, and I forwarded the message, the entire time each complaining the other was unresponsive, yet never thinking to adjust their settings so that the other’s email could get through.

As a result I strongly encourage the parties to pick up a phone — which everyone has these days — and make a phone call to the other person. More often than not, this is treated like a great offense. Memorably, I once received a long and angry email rant to my suggestion that a phone call would get through to a seller more effectively than the emails which had been sent 24 hours before, especially since I knew that seller was older and more comfortable with the telephone. I might as well have asked the buyer to dance naked down 5th Avenue, given the response. How dare I suggest to anyone else that they should do something as intrusive and rude as to call someone, and did I know how long it takes to make a phone call? Why didn’t I call on the buyer’s behalf, if I was such a phone freak?? Perhaps I should have been touched by his faith in email as a reliable medium, and perhaps he had his settings on to receive every message he gets, which he carefully scans; and after all, his emails did reach me.

Phone calls can’t possibly be intrusive as he thought they were, because as I also know, no-one (except perhaps that older seller) answers the phone anyway. I tried to reach one buyer myself because he had a curious double address, which looked to be incorrect. But the sellers with whom he’d placed orders had sent him email inquiries to no response, and when I emailed him as well, I also got no response. So I called, got voice mail, left a message, and still hadn’t heard back in 48 hours. So I cancelled the outstanding orders and sent a final email asking for clarification. A few days later he called, clearly never having seen the emails or listened to the voice mails, wondering why his orders had been cancelled.

Back when we could only send letters, I suspect letters got read. In fact, they were not only read, they were kept and cherished, so that part of my heritage includes old letters from my father, which his cousin kept in a drawer for 40 years. In a time when they couldn’t tweet each other (and the world) their every thought, communication was more important. And while I don’t expect anyone to hang on to an email or phone call from me forever, it is frustrating that when I follow up, it turns out the person I tried to reach hadn’t bothered to read or listen to what I’d sent or recorded. There’s no purpose to all or any of our communication modes if they just make us work harder to block each other out.

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