Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Transactional Distance

I've been thinking about the intrinsic limitations of e-mail recently as a form of communication. Part of what got me thinking was reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink ( - see the Rapid Cognition blog entry). That, in turn, got me thinking about neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and reading parts of my books on the subject. This led to noticing just how easily friends and colleagues misinterpret e-mail communication. I am, no doubt, susceptible to the same process which, in NLP terms, is called filtering; namely, deleting, distorting, and generalizing the messages received by the senses in creating my subjective experiences. Again, as they say in NLP, "the map is not the territory"; or, "we all create our own experiences."

Filtering will happen automically, no matter what the senses perceive. One would think, therefore, that the more sensory information, the better. If I can see it, can hear it, can smell it, can taste it, and can feel it...well, that should be better than merely seeing it. Certainly in the case of e-mail, one can make a strong case that the limitations of e-mail as a form of communication are owing to the lack of non-verbal information, to what some distance-education theorists call "transactional distance." In e-mail, we can't hear the tone of voice; we can't see the accompanying body language; we can't feel the blood pressure of our correspondent rising, and so on. We are, by virtue of depending on the written word alone, transactionally distant from the person with whom we are trying to communicate.

In e-mail, emoticons have been a valiant attempt to diminish the distance between correspondents. Even better, VOIP (voice over internet protocol) allows communication over the Internet in real-time by using headphones and microphones just like a telephone conversation. Webcams also help by providing a measure of real-time "body language".

All of this brings me back to rapid cognition once again. Part of Gladwell's message in Blink was that sometimes rapid cognition benefits from limiting the sources of information. Sometimes, it seems that we make better decisions when we have less information. ER doctors dealing with possible heart attack victims do a better job of diagnosis when they don't do a full patient history, but instead focus on just four specific pieces of information about heart health. Classical music auditions are more equitable when the musicians are "screened" from the "eyes" of those auditing their performance. There are many more examples in Gladwell's book.

So, why doesn't e-mail benefit us by providing less information? Probably because we often get the wrong information provided. When e-mail deals with issues with emotional side effects (most of the time, I guess), we don't get the information we need. The context, in other words, is wrong. The transactional distance has been increased. On the other hand, when dealing with issues less emotionally explosive, e-mail is perfectly suitable to the task at hand, precisely because it limits exposure to irrelevant contexts. In those situations, it is only distracting to hear a voice or to see a person's image in a webcam.

So, if all of this is true, here's my homework: prepare a series of questions, a kind of checklist, to help me determine when e-mail will work and when it encourages misinformation. I'll let you know how it goes.

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