We have lots of ways to communicate. And the most popular methods don’t require you to even open your mouth. Just misspell something in a box and hit send.
I remember the days working in an office tower when I rode an elevator ten floors to have a real-time conversation with a coworker. Sure, phone calls worked, but an in-person visit signified you meant business. It was a pain, so before I committed to it, I made sure I had all of my ducks in a row—my thoughts planned, my supporting materials under my arm, and my bathroom key in hand (just to be sure).
These days, we just type stuff, even when we’re sitting next to each other. It has become effortless to share snippets of information—sometimes without context, often without real words. And lest we forget how portable these snippets can be.
In my eyes, the most dangerous by-product of SMS, IM, Slack, Hipchat, or any other real-time, text-based communication is how it emboldens us to share information we wouldn’t ordinarily share, perhaps with people we typically wouldn’t, without being mindful of consequence. Such communication is subject to devolving into an electronic game of telephone, with the resolution of the original message degrading with each handoff.
Such communication is often referred to as the “backchannel,” coined by Victor Yngve in 1970, which evolved into a term that described an online conversation about a topic or speaker at tech conferences. In this context, I'm just talking about any online conversation one might have.
The backchannel can all-too-easily erode trust and compromise relationships. I’ve witnessed the aftermath of people sending messages about specific individuals, only to have such messages accidentally end up in the hands of the person being discussed. “Wrong window” syndrome. And yes, I’ve been guilty of sending a text message about a buddy to a group text, including said buddy. Nothing elevates heart rates quicker.
I think we rely on the backchannel because most of us inherently dislike conflict. Matt Tenney thinks you should embrace it as he wrote in his post for Huff Post Business:
“Unresolved personal conflict can be extremely toxic for a team or even an entire organization. Thus, the dialogue is not optional...”
I get it. Sometimes it’s easier to vent by talking it out with someone—whether it’s about a beef you have with someone else or something you don’t agree with at work. And expecting people to change decades of water cooler mentality in the digital age is a tall order. But next time you go down that path, just consider the consequences if that message ended up exactly where you didn’t want it to. Because it often does.