Preferred Contact Methods

Social etiquette often trails technological advances. You see it today when a group of friends are out to dinner and many are looking down at their smartphones. That’s obviously not an ideal social situation but no precise norms or allowances have been defined as the introduction of the always-connected device itself is still new.

I’ve been struggling lately with: how to locate, interact, coordinate, and communicate with people.

While at the same time balancing: timeliness of response required, perceived appropriateness of a communication method, ease of method, and sender’s and receiver’s own workflow.

Available Methods

We have a number of ways to get in touch with each other, find out whereabouts, ask questions, etc. Including, but not limited to:

  1. SMS / MMS / iMessage messages
  2. Email
  3. Phone call
  4. Video-based call
  5. Instant messaging
  6. Social network messaging
  7. Location-based services (Find My Friends, foursquare)
  8. Third-party (“tell Joe X”)
  9. Calendaring (share a schedule, meeting invitations)
  10. Chat rooms
  11. Portals or ticketing systems

Each of these then diverge further into personal and work versions of each, social networks each have different stated uses, and so on.


Because of all these methods exist, there are equally as many preferences and good / bad ways to talk to, coordinate with, and function amongst fellow humans:

  • Some of these methods aren’t available to individuals at all times (via a mobile device or otherwise)
  • Others can be available (via an application) but may not be installed or open at the right time
  • Notifications may not be fine-tuned to allow for timely responses (or disabled entirely, because of that)
  • Individuals may choose unstated methods they prefer to receive at different intervals (X during the day, Y at night)
  • Methods and preferences vary per person, all for good reason

So What?

I feel like I’m making this overly complicated and saying what we’re already aware of, but I want to make some points clear:

  • Timely communication (in warranted situations) may go undelivered. For example: did John get my SMS message stating I’ll be late? He’s at his desk in the office and has no mobile service and it would have been better if I sent him an email.

  • Opportunities may get overlooked entirely. similarly, if I don’t check LinkedIn but once a month but you send me a timely job prospect and then forget about it, it’s now my fault

  • The balance of power in some exchanges may favor one side (sender or receiver) if these preferences go unstated. For example, if Mary has a very busy schedule but I am more flexible, how can I take burden from her and put it on me to pick a good time or location to meet?

  • Social mistakes become easier and can strain relationships. I may send a non-important Twitter direct message to Steve late at night but his mobile phone alerts may allow it to wake up him and his wife with a vibration or noise alert.

Some of this is mitigated with better planning, but with the always-on and available nature of life (a separate discussion), expectations shift. Some can be simply stated outwardly (“I don’t check my email often, send me an SMS message when you’re going to be in town”), but as our business and personal social networks grow and preferences change this puts a burden on remembering (sometimes outdated) information.

Now all of this is to say that this is just how working with humans always has been and likely always will be. (Joe likes to chat with the neighbor on their front yards when he walks his dog, but Mary likes to call Jill and come over for tea.) But, with technology the challenges will likely grow, the consequences and challenges may as well, and is there any reason the tools we’ve created can’t also help solve the problems they’ve introduced?

For what its worth: I just experienced this trying to connect with friends (old and new) when visiting San Francisco. If I broadcast a note stating I will be in town via Twitter, I likely will get, but not guarantee, responses to arrive via Twitter (whether or not that’s either party’s preferred method of choice). Is email a better way to coordinate a days-away meal than a back-and-forth volley of messages? Should some of the conversation then move to SMS / iMessage when more immediate responses are required? Is sending messages to ask how far away you are any better than checking your location on Find My Friends?

Apply the same to business interactions: assuming email is the de-facto contact method of choice, when is it appropriate to make an introduction via a Facebook message? Which client can I send an SMS message to in order to get an immediate response (or vice versa)? Is it rude to decline a phone call conversation if you know it’d be better to hash out details through written instant messaging?