Document how you communicate

April 2014

The fundamental divide in communication styles is the divide between synchronous and asynchronous communication. Synchronous communication is when you say something, and then you don’t do anything else until the other person responds to what you say, like in a phone call. Asynchronous communication is when you fire off a message and then you forget about it and go do other things until you receive a response, at which point you process the response and reply at some indeterminate point in the future. That’s how most people use email.

The problem is that very few emails are truly asynchronous in the sense that the sender doesn’t care at all about the timing of the response. Most of the time they have some sort of timeframe by which they’d like a response. So it doesn’t work to put all your asynchronous messages in the same place: you need one place for fast-turnaround asynchronous messages, and one place for slow ones. (Usually in practice “fast” media interrupt you when you have a message and “slow” media don’t.)

Here’s what I use for each of those things:

Slow and asynchronous: Email and Facebook messages (although I’d prefer not to use the latter at all).

Fast and asynchronous: Text and Google Hangouts messages.

Synchronous: Hangouts, phone, and Skype.

Yours are probably a bit different. The problem is that by default I assume that everyone has roughly the same use patterns for these that I do. For instance, back when I used instant messaging a lot, I used it synchronously: I would say something so someone, wait for them to reply, and then immediately start responding. But some of my friends were using it as a fast asynchronous tool, so they would sometimes leave long gaps before they replied to what I said because they were multitasking. I would get frustrated because I thought they were being rude, but they were just using IM with a different norm than I was.

Similarly, sometimes people expect email or Facebook messages to be a fast-async medium for me. I don’t want to be quickly reachable by email or Facebook, because then I’d have to set my phone to tell me whenever I get a new email or Facebook message, and that would be incredibly distracting. But I’m sure for people who have a norm of being on their email more frequently, it’s frustrating that I only respond once a day in the evening. (In fact, sometimes I get worried enough about missing an urgent email that I break down and check more than once a day. This is usually a bad idea.)

And there are other smaller mismatches that can be bad too. I’ve set my phone up to silence itself automatically when I sleep, so sometimes I call or text people late at night and it wakes them up. I rarely know how long I should wait for an email or text response before checking in. When people leave a voicemail, I usually read the Google Voice transcript, so sometimes I miss details and they get annoyed.

If you don’t document how you communicate, you’re going to frustrate people when your usage patterns don’t match theirs. People will have to guess how you operate by trying a bunch of different media and trying to remember how you used each one. Rather than making people go through this, it might be easier to write it up somewhere and link to it in e.g. your email signature.

I’m planning to document mine on my contact page, but I’m also in the process of optimizing them further. I’d be interested to hear how other people approach this problem. How do you make sure that you handle all your incoming messages smoothly without being constantly distracted by them?

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Peter Hurford

I have this same problem where some people think texting should be fast and asynchronous but I’m fine with slow and asynchronous (e.g., I’m fine waiting a day to reply to a non-urgent text, and I don’t have texts set to interrupt me.)


Aaron Gertler

Meanwhile, I love Facebook messages, because they’re easy to save in a personal record and contain lots of timing information that can be helpful for context. But I hate texting, because it’s slow and ponderous and takes me away from doing useful things on my computer.

Great post – going into my metablog list of things to add.