Don’t Want to Miscommunicate? Try Face Time.

Apr 25

Image of two people looking at each other in black and white.


Let me paint a picture: It’s 4 p.m. on a Friday, and I’ve been exchanging emails with a coworker across the country all week. At this point, I can’t even remember my original point – in fact, I can’t remember what’s accurate and what isn’t anymore with all of these email threads. I’m frustrated and confused, and decide to send one last email before calling it a lost cause: “Can you just call me?”

Ever done that?

Here’s something you already know: we live in a world of virtual connections. Our texts, phone calls, and emails all carry messages from coworkers and family members in and out of our mental mailboxes all day, every day. I can reach my coworker in Oakland, California with the push of the “Send” button. Am I more efficient and effective because I can quickly write an email to her, knowing that she’ll probably respond just as quickly? Maybe, but we’ve certainly had misunderstandings because we communicate primarily by email and phone.

In 2016, 43% of Americans told Gallup that they spent at least some time working remotely, and that they work remotely for longer periods, with 31% of respondents working remotely four to five days a week. Given these statistics, is it problematic or beneficial that we connect with our coworkers through a variety of media? Before writing this post, I would say the connection beneficial; reaching someone across the globe has never been easier or more convenient. But after digging into this issue more, I realized that I wasn’t weighing the value of my email communications; I was just happy the emails reached their destinations as quickly as possible.

Many of us recognize the inherent value of face-to-face connection; it goes unsaid that “important” meetings are face-to-face occasions, especially with clients. But why is face-to-face interaction in the workplace so beneficial?

Diagram of the Media Richness Theory


This can be explained through a framework called the Media Richness Theory that allows us to “rate” media we use every day to enable communication. Essentially, the Media Richness Theory states that we choose a communications medium based on its richness and equivocality (the chance of being misunderstood) versus the resources available to us. So if I really need to “talk to” my coworker, but I’m sitting in an important meeting, I have two options:

-Leave the meeting to call, and risk upsetting the meeting leader.

-Send an email.

The chance of being misunderstood over email is higher because it is a leaner medium than a phone call. It doesn’t convey as much of my message because, unlike a telephone call, it cannot communicate tone of voice, volume, and other factors.

Media richness or leanness is determined by qualities that the medium possesses, like:

-The ability to handle multiple cues simultaneously.

-The ability to facilitate rapid feedback.

-The ability to establish a personal focus.

-The ability to be conducted through a natural language. (More information about these qualities can be found here.)

The more we can learn about the other person through the medium, through both verbal and nonverbal cues, the better the medium is at communicating, and therefore richer it is. When evaluated against these criteria, face-to-face communication is still relevant in this interconnected cybersphere we call home because it just works best.

Ever heard this? “93% of communication is nonverbal.”

Dr. Albert Mehrabian of UCLA is widely credited with this common statistic, but he actually postured that only 7% of a message is communicated in purely verbal form (38% of it is communicated through certain vocal elements like tone, and 55% through nonverbal elements like facial expressions, gestures, etc.). Regardless of whether you agree (and some don’t), it’s clear that nonverbal cues matter, and we only experience those cues through video chat or face-to-face interaction.

There’s a deeply human reason we get so excited about meeting a new coworker or finally seeing that team member who works from home across the country – nothing beats face-to-face interaction. That’s not to say you won’t miscommunicate in person too, but perhaps you’ll find it easier to communicate your point (and stay on message) when you’re using the richest medium available: good old face time.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 25th, 2017 at 3:16 pm and is filed under Best Practices, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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