Thursday, December 8, 2011

Face-to-Face

On emails, links, ideas having sex, and the strength of weak ties.

Posted By on Thu, Dec 8, 2011 at 4:00 AM

Hurray for Atos, a company I never heard of until I read about it in The New York Times this week.

According to the Times, the international information technology services company is phasing out office emails because its chief executive, Thierry Breton, "considers 90 percent of them a waste of time." He suggests employees spend more time talking to each other in person or on the phone and switch to "real-time" messaging tools like text messages or social media. And they can start by limiting the use of the "reply all" option.

How welcome that would be. Few businesses benefit more from direct communication, either by phone or face-to-face, than journalism. But journalists are also surrounded by technological temptations to take shortcuts via email.

I was reminded of this last week when I interviewed Rajiv Grover, the dean of the Fogelman College of Business at the University of Memphis, for a future magazine article. Born and educated in Calcutta, he's a small volcano of interesting ideas on marketing, business education, Silicon Valley start-ups, Facebook (he's not on it), job readiness, and collegiate athletics, among other things. We spent a few hours talking in his office over two days. Had I opted to do the interviews by phone or email, I would not have gotten to know him nearly as well, and neither would our readers.

We talked a lot about diversity in India, in Memphis, and at universities. Two phrases Grover likes to use are "ideas having sex" and "the strength of weak ties." He is not the author of either of them. The former was coined by author Matt Ridley, the latter by a sociologist named Mark Granovetter. You can look them up on YouTube or Google. Grover provided links. I watched a few minutes, read a few entries, enough to get an attribution and a general sense that sameness can cause stagnation and redundancy.

But if I had spent a whole day reading their books and papers — which I did not — I would probably not have understood those concepts as well as I did after talking to a stranger from India for a couple of hours.

If you're a careful reader of newspapers either in print or online, you've noticed many of us are reporting more and more that so-and-so "wrote in an email response" or "replied by email" rather than simply "said" something, either in person or on the phone. It's part convenience, part management on the part of both parties. An email can be crafted, and spontaneity, candor, and context can be lost.

Whatever you may think of the Memphis City Council, the Shelby County Commission, and the new joint school board, there is something to be said for people of different colors, genders, ages, neighborhoods, and viewpoints hashing things out face-to-face. Ditto for public comments. Name and address, please; you have three minutes. It may be boring, maddening, or bizarre, but it's ideas having sex and the strength of weak ties in action. And it's usually more constructive, responsible, and civil than an anonymous Internet message board, where it's easy to hate or belittle someone you can't see.

An old friend and journalist, Michael Rubenstein, died last week. He was director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and former sports anchor for a Jackson television station, but he didn't have a cell phone because "nobody told me they can't find me." He was a face-to-face guy and probably knew as many newsmakers as anyone in Mississippi.

Very retro and dinosaur behavior and all that, but worth remembering.

The best advice to people in new media and old media is still some of the oldest advice. If you want to find out more about something, whether it's the city council, the new skate park, suburban sprawl, black churches, white churches, or Tiger basketball, or understand someone on the other side of the room or the other side of town, the best way is to get away from your desk, your phone, your computer, and talk to people face-to-face and go have a look.

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