Media Richness Theory
What is this? Who cares? Well, if you have any kind of virtual communication, it’s worth knowing about. For a happy, communicative remote workplace, it’s crucial. Have you ever received a smiley face emoji, and wondered whether it was meant to be happy, or whether you were being sent passive-aggressive signals?
(A quick google to find a picture of a smiley emoji led me to this article: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/aug/11/dont-put-on-a-happy-face-are-you-using-the-smiley-emoji-all-wrong . A perfect start to my point.)
Media richness theory was developed in the mid-1980s, before the advent of smartphones. And it’s not perfect, it sometimes misses the effects of social pressures and conventions, or how different cultures may codify communication. Nevertheless, its basic principles are worth thinking about. Daft & Lengel (1986) originally suggested that different media have different levels of ‘richness’ (i.e. more or less contextual cues to explain a message). Media with lower levels of richness (e.g. email, or letters) are more likely to be misinterpreted than those with higher richness (voice calls, face to face communication).
Think about it: when you send an email, the receiver has to interpret the tone and urgency of your message purely from the words you’ve used. A reply takes a while, and may not help too much with clarification (have you ever asked multiple questions in an email, and received an answer to only one?). Similarly, emotional state is hard to convery (was the “Regards,” passive aggressive, or not?).
See this article for more “common” email translations you may not have thought about: https://www.coburgbanks.co.uk/blog/friday-funnies/passive-aggressive-email-phrases-translated/
Instant messenger conversations are already better – discussions can be broken down into shorter chunks, more like a spoken conversation – so topics can be more clearly addressed. You might still have the “emotional state” question (is my manager angry at me? They used a basic smiley, and every sentence was punctuated with a full stop…), and occasionally information may get lost, but it’s better than email for more complex discussions.
Phone calls are another step up: instant replies in situations of confusion, and more can be discussed, faster.
Video calls add facial expression and body language, which can be hugely helpful in understanding how a colleague is *really* doing (the “I’m good!” from their messages may not have been so convincing…). Gestures can also help understand whether the receiver has really understood the explanation, and also help send the message (imagine trying to explain a poster design over the phone vs over video).
A few things to think about:
- How urgently do you need a reply?
- How complex is your message?
- How sensitive is your message?
- How many people are you trying to reach?
If you’re organising a party for 50 people, maybe you don’t need to talk to them all individually, an email could be best.
If you want to know a specific detail asap, call – otherwise a message could suffice.
Are you trying to start up a new, super-complex team project? Some slides with voice notes could probably get your information across, but people will have questions. Book a meeting (preferably with video, so you can read the confusion on people’s faces).
Are you going to fire someone? Yes, an email could suffice to get the information across clearly. It could make the job easier for you, since you don’t have to face the emotional reaction, so you can be colder in your text. But that’s not very nice, and out of respect, a meeting would be best. It’s also been noticed that people can be more aggressive (and misinterpret tone more) over messages/email, since there is an element of depersonalisation through the screen. So don’t risk starting a fight (passive-aggressive or not) over texts. Call someone, see them face-to-face.
And once people know each other better, it becomes easier to switch between communication channels – if (fictional) Linda replies to me saying “It’s fine 🙂”, I might sense some tension and worry that it is in fact, not fine.
But then I remember that Linda is never passive aggressive, didn’t think twice about the menace of the smiley – and whatever it is is actually fine, because we’d spoken about it before. But if I hadn’t known Linda’s typing style and usual communication, there’s a huge difference between “It’s fine 🙂” and “It’s fine 😊”. Maybe Linda was angry. I’d have to ask to be sure, which wastes work time. Maybe I should just accept that Linda dislikes my work.
Key takeaways: know who you’re talking to, and why. Know when a meeting could have been an email, but also know when you need to be extra clear, and when your typing tone may be lost in translation. And be very careful when you use this guy (especially with the younger generations): 🙂.