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March 9, 2011 / Jim Fenton

Social Protocols vs. Technology

500-series Telephone

The "Old World"

While I was off skiing a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues at work sent me an email asking whether it would be OK to schedule a meeting about something. Using my smartphone, I sent a message saying, “Sure, please send me a meeting invitation on Outlook” [like many companies, we use Microsoft Exchange for meeting scheduling, and my coworkers have access to my free/busy status]. But I asked myself: was this interaction necessary?

In many circles, it is now the norm to send an instant message to ask a colleague if they’re free before calling them on the phone. Someone that I communicate with primarily using Skype once commented that he considered it rude for someone with instant messaging capability (such as that in Skype) to call him without messaging him first.

This all prompts me to ask whether we’re using all this technology correctly, or whether we are creating unnecessarily complicated social protocols around the technology. Around the time I entered the work force, the procedure for contacting someone might go like this:

  • Look up phone number, dial phone
    • If busy, wait 10 minutes and retry
    • If no answer, wait an hour and retry
    • If secretary or office-mate answers, leave message
  • Otherwise, talk with called party

These days, it might look like this:

  • 1. Look up IM address, check presence
    • If IM presence info is unavailable, look up phone number and jump to step 2.
    • If presence says “Away”, “Busy”, or “Do Not Disturb” and it’s not an emergency, wait 10 minutes and retry
    • Send a short IM to see if callee is available for a phone call and ask for phone number to use
  • 2. Dial phone
    • If voicemail answers, leave message.  If you looked up the number in Step 1, decide whether to try again with a different contact number.
  • 3. Otherwise, talk with called party.

And this is for an informal meeting; for a more formal meeting, perhaps with a superior, it’s somewhat the norm to start with an email exchange to explain the reason for the meeting, then to send a calendar invitation for a phone call at some point in the future, and then to place the call at the appointed time.  It’s as though we feel compelled to use every bit of technology at our disposal.

Part of this is a symptom of the pervasive scheduling of our society.  When I was young, I’d go knock on a neighbor’s door to see if their kids were available to play.  These days, play dates are set up well in advance and little is left to chance.  This is probably necessary because our kids are much busier than we ever were.

I’m not sure whether it’s more or less efficient to communicate these days.  Given the advances in technology, are we just putting up social barriers to easy communication?


Leave a Comment
  1. Barry Leiba / Mar 11 2011 1:36 pm

    Hi, Jim. Is it OK for me to post a comment on this?

  2. Jim Fenton / Mar 11 2011 6:30 pm


    It took me a minute to get that.

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