For some people, meeting colleagues and developing networks comes easy. For others, like me, it’s not. For introverts, taking a class on how to win friends might help.
So, 15 years ago, I enrolled in one of those Dale Carnegie-like courses. A great deal of personal success flows from (1) who you know; (2) how well you know them; and (3) whether they like you. The course emphasized communication as the means by which personal relationships are forged. That’s not surprising.
One aspect of the course I distinctly recall was the hierarchy of communication modes. You’ve got phone calls, e-mails, texts. There’s the personal letter. There’s face-to-face communications.
Face-to-face communications rank highest. Talking with someone is the most effective medium for conveying content, values and emotions. It’s also the most effective foundation on which to construct personal relationships.
Second best? The phone call.
Third best? A “snail mail” letter, a handwritten note being superior to one composed by word processing. An email or a text (or, in the days when I took the course, a fax) ranked last. In 2006 — a year after I took that course — a new last-place mode of communication was born: Twitter.
One idea that I took away from the course was that one ought to utilize the highest-ranking mode for the circumstances. Following a business lunch, for example, a follow-up handwritten thank-you note was the recommended means by which to cultivate the relationship.
Back around the time I took the networking class, I remember a respected life insurance agent who, every holiday season, handed out complimentary calendars with his name and logo on them. He didn’t mail them. He personally delivered each one, shaking hands and wishing you well. It was very effective.
Another general rule occurs to me in this regard and it’s this: the more you want to avoid a real-time conversation with someone, the more likely you ought to steel yourself and communicate directly. Beware the temptation to text or to tweet.
Consider the most difficult communications. Perhaps it’s ending a relationship, firing an employee or breaking up with a lover. Perhaps it’s delivering grim news such as the death of a loved one or a terminal diagnosis.
Surely, rather than face her patient and deliver the bad news directly, an oncologist might prefer to slip a note into the mailbox. The oncologist’s anxiety should inform her that the best way to communicate the news is face-to-face.
Why should this be so? I think it’s precisely because of the discomfort involved. The doctor owes her patient a face-to-face conversation. The boss owes it to the worker he’s about to lay off. It’s because of — not in spite of — the psychic cost of the discomfort. The hardest way of conveying difficult things is typically best.
It’s a measure of respect. It signifies. The way to dignify fellow human beings is to act respectfully to them. It’s what we do (and how we do it) that counts. That’s also not surprising.
To respect others takes more than inclination; it takes strength. Kindness is not enough unless it’s accompanied by the courage to be kind. Empathy alone is not enough. Insistence is not enough, either, unless it’s backed up by courage.
When President George H.W. Bush was preparing to go to war with Iraq in 1991, he convinced 35 allies to join his coalition force. How did he do it? With personal phone calls to world leaders with whom he had developed personal relationships. Calling a leader to ask that she contribute her nation’s soldiers to a war is tough. Bush had to be tough to make those calls.
Today, Twitter has a useful function. Twitter has its place. Twitter itself acknowledges this when it says: “We understand the desire for our decisions to be ‘yes/no’ binaries, but it’s not that simple.” Sometimes, Twitter is an acceptable mode of communication; sometimes not. For the most difficult communications, Twitter is inadequate.
To use social media for communications that merit a genuine conversation might suggest cowardliness. And it can convey disrespect. Virtue requires knowing what is right. It also requires the strength to do what is right.
Thomas E. Simmons is an associate professor at the University of South Dakota School of Law in Vermillion. His views and opinions are his own and not those of the University of South Dakota, its School of Law or the Board of Regents.