Telephone calls by appointment, please

The telephone is not my favorite mode of communication, especially for business. Telephone communication is inherently disruptive and (usually unnecessarily) urgent. I rarely accept unsolicited calls, or calls from people I don't know. (Caller ID is the best invention in telephony since the answering machine.)

Every unplanned "5-minute" telephone call breaks my concentration for at least 20-30 minutes. I refer you to an excellent book, PeopleWare by Tom DeMarco and Tony Lister, for a discussion of the effects of telephone calls on productivity and the importance of being able to divert calls.

There have been some people who, upon being told my preference, have deliberately misunderstood and warped my beliefs into a refusal to have anything to do with the telephone. This is not true; however, it is true that if I don't recognize the number on the Caller ID Display, I will often let a call go straight to voicemail.

I believe we have far more efficient modes of communicating at our disposal. Miss Manners (Judith Martin) apparently agrees with me. Although her preference is for blueblack ink on white unlined paper, we both have a stated preference for the written word in person to person communication.

The best way to reach me is by email

In today's internetworked environment, we have many modes of communication besides the telephone from which to choose: fax, email, electronic whiteboards, wikis, news groups, instant messaging ... to name a few. For most business communication, I prefer email.

With Email, I can respond or generate a message when I feel like it. Email is self-documenting, providing a written record of interactions; I don't have to take (or lose!) notes. There is no "on hold" with Email. Telephone calls, on the other hand, demand my attention right now.

Email is:

  • editable - I can rework it until it says exactly what I want it to say

  • asynchronous - I can read or write it on my time

  • not time-bounded - I can stop and come back to it later

  • precise - the reader may misunderstand my meaning or my intent, but cannot mistake my actual words

  • referential - if the reader misunderstands me, we can point directly to a phrase or sentence and work with that

  • patient - as someone once said, you should wait until the screen stops flashing red and black before you send your reply...

  • adjustable - the writer can re-read and recraft things to take off any recognizable sharp points ... or put them on

Voice/telephone communication, on the other hand is:

  • linear - a speaker can't easily back up and change something, and if s/he tries, it's in full view of the audience

  • immediate - it happens now, whether or not now is convenient

  • time-bounded - everything happens in real time; neither participant has much time to think or plan their words

  • inherently imprecise - the listener hears what s/he thinks is said; the speaker recalls what s/he thinks was said; without a tape recorder and a good transcription no one is ever really sure

  • slippery - it's easier to get into an argument with voice conversation, or get lost in details, or get sidetracked

When to call...

A lot of people apparently feel that if they have a lengthy explanation they should call with it; however, I am more likely to get the most out of your comments if I see them first in print. I realize that some people don't type as well as they talk - that's OK, you have plenty of time to write out your thoughts. I'm the other way around; I write better than I talk. If you call, I'll be taking notes; it's more efficient if we start with the written word.

Especially if it's going to be a complicated discussion, I'd prefer to get any background explanatory material first via email. After that we can converse by typing (via Messenger) or talking (via phone) if a further conversation is deemed necessary. If we can start with the written methods and move to the phone later (rather than start with the phone) I'll be better able to handle your needs.

Email can and should be used for:

  1. discussions that should be documented

  2. longer term Q&A between two people

  3. short but not urgent questions

  4. long but not urgent questions which require thought in responding

  5. discussions between at most 3 people

  6. status reports

  7. anything that should be documented

The telephone can and often should be used for:

  1. urgent contact with a precisely defined short-term goal

  2. short give-and-take discussions requiring quick turnaround decisions

  3. 3- or more-way short discussions with well-defined goals

  4. communication 'meetings' (with an agenda and a recognized person in charge)

  5. long casual conversation between friends and relatives

Nevertheless, other forms of communication may be as well (or better) suited to handle a given situation. Instant messaging systems, for example, (AIM, Yahoo IM, etc) can take the place of the telephone for cases #1 and #2 above, and IM is self-documenting. Case #3 (and perhaps #4 as well) may be successfully handled by 'chat' sessions. Online video conferencing is improving for case #4.

Telephone calls by appointment, please...

Finally, if you feel you must call, it will help considerably if I know ahead of time that a phone call will be coming, in order to plan my time accordingly. Please send me email and request my telpehone number.

See also