A decision-making experience by a local trade association board has caused me to wonder whether electronic written communication is contributing to polarization and related phenomenon such as a decline in creative governing.
Until a magical turning point, probably twenty years ago, members of governing boards and legislatures communicated with each other by telephone. In most cases, these conversations were cordial, cheerful, respectful, personal and wide ranging. Parties could show respect for another person’s point of view, and, by tone of voice and inflection, communicate subtleties. Calls rarely ended in standoffs.
On the other hand, Email messages are brief, direct, and limited in range. Many conclude with a categorical point of view. Phrases such as “I must respectfully disagree,” appear often, in place of a common telephone technique of repeating another person’s point of view to confirm understanding, followed by attempts at compromise or searching for new solutions. Pure and unlimited brain storming is difficult to impossible in an email string, and wild, out-of-the-box content rarely appears because new ideas can appear silly or irrelevant in print. Fear of public release also restricts content.
My experience was promotion and management of a four-year program having a two-year history. I arrived at the board meeting assuming that board members would honor their previous commitment, but, to my surprise and consternation, every director voted to terminate the program. Had I been speaking to them on the telephone, instead of Emailing short updates, I would have picked up their opposition long in advance.
Do legislators talk, or do they email? Do their staffs meet in person with interested parties, or just trade messages? Are bills written by electronic exchanges, or in conference telephone calls? Would Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan have called, joked and negotiated, or, today, would they have shouted at each other by Email? Could someone have prevented Benghazi by telephoning concerns instead of by emails that might never have been read? I do not know, but I support the telephone.
John Guy is a certified financial planner, is author of “Middle Man, A Broker’s Tale,” and president of Indianapolis-based Wealth Planning & Management LLC. He regularly writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal and contributes to the Civic Blog.