Derek Sivers reminds us that on the other end of our keyboard there lies a real person, someone who has real feelings, who will have real reactions to what we say.
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When we yell at our car or coffee machine, it’s fine because they’re just mechanical appliances.
So when we yell at a website or company, using our computer or phone appliance, we forget it’s not an appliance, but a person that’s affected.
It’s dehumanizing to have thousands of people passing through our computer screens, so we do things we’d never do if they were sitting next to us.
He’s right. I’ve recently had an experience with someone suffering a total empathy failure, who didn’t seem able to put himself in my shoes and ask himself, “So, how would I feel about this situation?” It wasn’t very pleasant. This chap seemed to have entirely forgotten that their was another human being, with real feelings, who was being directly affected by his poor behaviour.
But I think we can do something about the dehumanising aspect of device-mediated interactions, and that something is to use more social media, particularly the tools that encourage small talk and phatic communication. In 2004, David Weinberger said in his JOHO newsletter:
[…] Art expresses something big in something small. (If it expresses something small in something big, you leave during the intermission.) Likewise, in small talk, we express ourselves in the details of what we talk about, the words we use, the ones we don’t, how far we lean forward, how tentatively or aggressively we probe for shared ground. Because all of this is implicitly presented, it tends to give a more accurate picture of who we are and what we care about than big, explicit conversations.
[…] I’m more of a constructivist than an archaeologist when it comes to social relationships. My aim isn’t to expose my buried self to you. It’s to build a conversation and then a relationship that eventually is so deep that we can’t disentangle the roots. For that, we need lots and lots of ambiguity.
He is still spot on. I responded to him in a post on Headshift’s blog, where I was writing at the time, and said:
What are the best aspects of conferences? The bits inbetween the panels and Q&A sessions where we get to chat with our peers. What is the best bit of the working day? Those watercooler conversations or lunch down the pub. Why do smokers have an advantage in the workplace? Because they take regular smoke breaks where they get the opportunities to chat and exchange scraps of information that become important later on.
Small talk is part of the ‘social grooming’ that is required to create and maintain social bonds. Through small talk, people reveal contextual information that they couldn’t otherwise share, particularly in a business setting. It’s around the coffee machine that you’re most likely to find out that your colleague was up all night with their sick child, which is why they looked like they were nodding off in a meeting. This extra nugget of information allows you to sympathise with them instead of getting annoyed – the context turns a negative reaction into a positive one, and helps keep the team working together instead of fostering mistrust and other destructive emotions.
Yet small talk is often despised, particularly in a work environment where one ‘should’ be concentrating on the task in hand, not chatting. But without small talk, without those bonds and the trust that they engender, teams fragment and become inefficient. The strong work ethic that has become prevalent since the industrial revolution has lessened tolerance for the social grooming activities upon which a sense of community depends, yet some companies spend a lot of money on team-building exercises which are really nothing more than formalised (and therefore often ineffective) opportunities for small talk.
The demise of the communal teabreak in offices has probably done more harm that good. The habit in many offices is that people work through their breaks, including lunch, and the idea of taking a short break mid-morning and mid-afternoon is very much frowned upon. People also have a tendency not to take breaks communally anymore except for the odd lunch or drinks after work. These trends decrease the opportunity for face-to-face small talk in the workplace.
Instead, people use email, instant messaging programme or external blogs or bulletin boards in order to get their fix of chitchat. The social requirement for small talk hasn’t gone away, it’s just moved online.
At the Social Tools for Enterprise Symposium, Euan Semple talked about his experiences implementing social software internally at the BBC. He found that a significant fraction of posts on the bulletin boards were not overtly to do with work, but either passing on experiences gained outside of work or the sort of small talk that glues communities together. But, as Euan says, “People get to trust each other through small talk, and I actively defend it against those who say it is not work related.”
It’s as true now as it was then.