Friday 21 November 2014

The Importance Of Being Roger

Roger has been somewhat shunted unceremoniously to one side in the modern world.  We seem to have forgotten why he was ever there in the first place, and the important role he used to play.  Without Roger, our world today is a less friendly place, one in which misunderstandings are easy to come by.  Personally, I miss him, but then again I suppose I am just another old fart.

In the early day of person-to-person radio communications, Roger played a critically important role.  If you are flying an aeroplane, and you want to announce to the control tower that you’re commencing your takeoff roll, you want to be sure that the control tower is aware of that, otherwise all sorts of unpredictable outcomes could potentially result, some of them dire.  That’s where Roger comes in.  The control tower responds “Roger” and now you know your message has been received and, by extension, that the control tower knows you are rolling.  It is part of what we today recognize as a handshaking protocol, something that ensures the effectiveness of a two-way communication.  Handshaking is a tool to ensure that a message has been received, that it has been understood, and that both parties know either who is expected to speak next, or that they are agreed that the conversation is over.

When speaking to someone face-to-face, or over the telephone, there are implied cues to which we tend to adhere in order to provide this handshaking element.  These can be turns of phrase, vocal inflections, gestures, and the like.  They often vary among cultures.  How we communicate with a person has important ramifications as to how the other person perceives us, and how we in turn perceive the other person.  We may perceive that person to be brusque, friendly, rude, gregarious, or to have any of a number of attributes.  If, as a person, your inter-personal communications cause others in the world to perceive you wrongly, it is well-understood that you could have problems in your life.

Generally, it is important in our day-to-day inter-personal communications that we understand how the subtext of our communication is being received.  If you ask someone if they want to have a beer with you after work, there is world of difference between “No” and “Gee, I’m sorry, but my daughter has soccer practice”.  Most of us, when we speak with someone face-to-face or on the telephone, understand the subtext, even as we recognize that the understanding itself is sometimes in error.

Roger’s absence first became a problem with the widespread introduction of e-mail into mostly business correspondence.  If I send an e-mail inviting a colleague out for dinner when I’m in town next week, many people will find it acceptable to reply “No” in an e-mail when they really mean “Gee, I’m sorry, but I’m out of town that day”, even when they would never dream of responding with the terse “No” in a face-to-face situation.  It is part of a complex issue, one on which I don’t propose to write a treatise, but a major contributory factor is that, for most of us, it takes far longer to compose an e-mail message that properly encapsulates the subtext with which we wish to endow our response, and often we just don’t feel we have that time.  Personally, I find that excuse to be a lazy one, and if not, then disrespectful towards the recipient.

In today’s world, for many people the text message has replaced the e-mail, particularly for one-on-one conversations.  Partly by their nature, and partly due to the hardware typically used to send them, text messages tend to be terse by default.  Additionally, text message conversations tend to replace telephone conversations for many people.  They want to multi-task.  They will fit your text conversation in as they find time during the course of their day.  And so will you.  Consequently, the alternative of a phone call takes on something of the aura of an intrusion.  Which is rather frustrating, since, in the grand scheme of things, a phone conversation is always many, many times more effective.  But that too is another discussion.

This is where Roger comes in.  The lingua franca of texting is the curt message.  I don’t know about you, but I really feel the need to know that a message has been received and understood.  If I send a text that says something to the effect of “I need to see your report by the end of the day”, I feel unhappy if I don’t get a response.  It’s like if I said the same thing to that person in my office, and he just walked out without responding.  It is very clear to me how I would interpret such an action.  And shortly thereafter it would be equally clear to the other person.  What is missing is Roger.  All you need is a text response that says “Will do”.  Or even “K”, if that’s your thing.  Sadly, and frustratingly, I am finding that Roger is very much the exception rather than the rule these days.

I said earlier that inter-personal “handshaking” protocols are to a large degree cultural, and maybe that’s what’s going on here.  A texting culture is arising - or has arisen - in which subtext is no longer being conveyed at all - even emoticons, as best as I can tell, are en route to being pass√©.  If so, that is a counter-productive development.  I do converse with a few people routinely whose preferred mode of communication is the text message, and have done so for some time.  But I still find it a frustrating medium, and mainly because I dearly miss Roger, which I still give, but rarely receive.