March 7, 2009

Where do you fall on the digital impatience scale?

Curtis Sliwa, WABC Radio

Curtis Sliwa, WABC Radio

David SparkThursday night, I was on ABC Radio (Curtis Sliwa Show, WABC — he’s the guy who started the Guardian Angels in NYC) talking about “textual harassment.” To prepare for my on-air appearance, I delved into the subject, interviewing friends, asking them if they had been “textually harassed.” And my assumption was correct. In most cases, SMS harassment was the result of an ex trying to maintain some type of contact with a former partner. That’s a very broad definition as the “ex” — could be someone you just had a single date with or met at a bar.

The textual harassment would manifest itself in a barrage of text messages. And it often came as the result of not getting a response to any form of communication. The person would wait for a response, nothing would come and then they’d send another. And at each “waiting” interval between messages, the time got shorter and shorter until it became zero and the messages just came flooding in.

Here’s the interview. Stream or download (Time 11:30):

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Textual harassment is a severe case of being frustrated by not getting a response. But the story got me thinking about all forms of communications and how long we’re willing to wait for a response before we get frustrated and try to reach that person again. If we leave someone a voicemail, do we pick up the phone and leave them another voice mail, or do we call their cell phone, send them an email, SMS, or something else?

Some people want to respond, but they truly forget and are appreciative that you’ve followed up with them. But others know that you called and emailed, and become annoyed when you touch base again. If a person’s sensitivities are very low, a few pings can be considered “harassment.” How do you know? And how do you deal with stepping over someone’s personal rules of conduct?

I’ve got one rule of thumb I adhere to every time I call someone on the phone. My first question is always, “Did I catch you at a good time or a bad time?” When someone picks up the phone, they may not be in the same zone to talk as you might be. You can’t see their situation. You’ve prepared yourself for the discussion because you made the call, but the recipient may not be, and your intended discussion probably requires a considerable level of attention.

Every form of communications offers a different level of intimacy, connectivity, expected response, and at the same time, distance—in a literal and psychological sense.

Think about all the forms of communications that you have. I’ve ranked these, more or less, from most intimate to least intimate.

  1. Face to face conversations
  2. Videoconferencing
  3. Land-line phone conversations
  4. Mobile phone
  5. Skype calling
  6. Text messages (SMS)
  7. Instant messenging
  8. Voice mail
  9. Letters
  10. Email
  11. Messaging through social networks
  12. Messaging in collaboration environments (e.g. discussion boards, wikis, and enterprise 2.0 tools)
  13. Twitter
  14. Facebook status updates

If we were having a face-to-face conversation and you asked me a direct question and I just sat there in silence and did something else for two minutes before I responded, you would be annoyed and find it rather insulting. But if you asked me the same question via SMS and I took two minutes to respond, you’d actually think I was being very quick to respond, and actually be grateful.

The time I took to respond in both situations is exactly the same. The only difference is the tool for communication. Yet your response is completely different. This is an extreme example, but we run into this problem every day, multiple times a day.

How do you handle waiting for a response, and how do you follow up when you don’t hear back right away?David Spark, a partner in, helps businesses grow by developing thought leadership through storytelling and covering live events. Contact David by email, follow him on Twitter and Google Plus or leave a comment below.

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