Communication is Verbal, Written and Physical

When was the last time you received a real-life Christmas card?

When I was a child a millennium ago, your popularity was judged by how many cards you received.

They were hung as decorations on ribbon or displayed on the mantelpiece.

The amount of detail that was communicated ranged from "Dear Kate [insert cheesy greeting] Love So-and-So" to fold out double-sided typed up reports boasting of the sender’s achievements over the past year.

Now, whether it is due to slower postal services, higher prices, general apathy towards Christmas or the climate-conscious drive to minimise waste, fewer real-life Christmas cards are being sent.

Some in the industry were so worried, they commissioned the "Greeting Cards — Global Market Trajectory & Analytics" report. The global market for greeting cards estimated at $US23 billion ($NZ36 billion) in the year 2020, is projected to decline to a revised size of $US20.9 billion by 2026, falling at a compound annual growth rate of -1.7% over the analysis period.

Common alternatives are e-cards flooding your email inbox or global messages posted on social media. Either way, it has me thinking about how we communicate much more by digital means, often in shorter and punchier ways that leave room for misinterpretation and/or a lack of genuine feeling.

With digital communication channels people have the wall of a screen between them. Vocal cues and body language indicators that are so key in face-to-face interactions — are out of the question.

This is where the "Mehrabian model" comes into play. It is the commonly touted concept that 93% of our understanding comes through from non-verbal communication.

But if words are only worth 7% of our communication, what does this mean for digitally written communication? Boomers send text messages; Gen X-ers use Facebook and WhatsApp; young’uns use Snapchat and Insta.

In the 1960s, Albert Mehrabian (University of California) conducted a psychological study on how humans communicate with each other and show each other their emotions.

The results (often referred to as the Mehrabian model) indicated that facial cues were the most important means of communication (55%), then tone of voice (38%). Words were the least important (7%). However, with the rise of written digital communication, many consider that the Mehrabian model is outdated.

Yet, others point out that the Mehrabian model is more about how feelings are communicated, not how information is given in general. What it did show is that when a person’s tone and expressions are inconsistent with what they say, we tend to trust their non-verbal communication.

For example, if you ask your co-worker if they are OK with taking on an additional task, and they reply "Yes" with a negative tone and a grimace, their non-verbal communication would show that, in reality they do not want more work to do.

People who do not pick up on non-verbal communication cues are said to lack "emotional intelligence" or to"miss the point".

However, when there are no additional cues because the only form of communication is written, there is plenty of scope for misinterpretation between what the writer intended to mean, and what the reader understands is being conveyed.

When live, non-verbal communication is not possible, it is important to take extra steps to avoid miscommunication. Here are some tips:

Use Gifs/photos/emojis for impact: They convey facial cues. Be careful not to overuse them though as they can become distracting. Also, be sure they strike the right mood. For example, a Gif you find funny might be seen as grotesque or inappropriate to the reader of your message.

Send recorded messages: You can send audio recordings. They will capture your tone and cadence. The best format to send is a video recording (for example over Loom) as this will show your facial expressions and possibly hand gestures too.

Be positive and clear: When stressed, people are prone to make negative assumptions to protect their point of view. Your choice of words can show positive sentiments. For example, in customer training modules it is recommended not to use the words: "can’t", "won’t" and "don’t". These terms (and those like them) create a negative tone. Personally, I am cautious about how I use "but" and "just" as those words can sound flippant. Also, be as clear as possible. Being vague or euphemistic leaves room for your message to be misunderstood and assumptions to be made.

Snail mail and unnecessary cardboard waste may no longer be our desired means of spreading Christmas cheer. However, non-verbal communication will always be important. In an increasingly online world, it is important to adapt our use of technology to communicate as expansively as possible. And if in doubt, try a novel idea — dial a number on your "phone app" and just talk!

This was published in the Otago Daily Times on 7 December 2022.