If there’s one good thing that’s come out of the Sony hacking — apart from hints of Idris Elba taking over as James Bond — it’s that we now have proof that even those who have reached the top of a major organization are in desperate need of a lesson on how to appropriately use online communication.
The internet makes it easier to talk faster and more frequently, but all of us become socially stupider with every click of the “send” button. Speed and quantity has replaced empathy and quality — and that’s after less than two decades of using email.
But even after that relatively short amount of time, can we really teach ourselves and employees how to be smarter and more thoughtful when dashing off that quick message and hitting send?
The first step is to recognize just how much online communication has stymied our development. This isn’t just a cynical millennial-raised-by-boomers talking. Psychology can back me up.
Psychologist Frieda Birnbaum and I talked — over the phone, not through email — about how rapid online communication has altered our mindsets and whether we can reteach ourselves to add more humanity in our Internet conversations. The problem affects everyone, from Gens Y and Z to people in their 50s, such as Sony’s Pascal.
“We can write something very quickly without worrying about facing the other person, watching someone else’s reaction, and it becomes all about us,” Birnbaum said. “We’re unplugging from each other and plugging into machines.”
This isn’t a new idea. In 2004, Rider University psychologist John Suler published a paper on the “Online Disinhibition Effect,” which translates to how people are more likely to act out aggressively online than in person. Ten years later, a number of researchers have catalogued the way online communication is diminishing our basic human skills, from developing interpersonal relationships to reading social situations correctly.
All hope is not lost, however. Birnbaum said eye contact is essential to get back what we’ve lost looking at screens and not each other when communicating.
Learning leaders should push managers to hold face-to-face meetings rather than start an email chain. Also encourage people to turn around and talk to each other. I can’t say how many times I’ve swiveled around in my chair to ask my fellow editors questions rather than shoot off a quick email. If anything, it saves time and wear-and-tear on my keyboard.
But most of all, keep in mind that as technology gets faster, our reaction rate also increases while our psychological ability to be diplomatic — or, in Pascal’s case, inoffensive — decreases. Simply put, it’s time to stop responding without reflecting first.
Story time with Kate now. In December alone, I made fewer than 20 phone calls but sent more than 200 emails within business hours. I can guarantee that I’ve made the same core mistake that led to such ill-minded sentencing: sending without thinking. That’s how I misscheduled interviews and made embarrassing typos. It’s on my shortlist of New Year’s Resolutions to reread what I’m sending at least twice before shooting it into cyberspace.
Consider putting it on your list of goals for 2015, too. We have no choice when it comes to re-examining how we use email, Birnbaum said. Technology will evolve, and so will hackers’ ability to break into it. “We have to be part of that whether it’s for our own protection or just being on track with the rest of society.”