Thursday 13 December 2018

Need a favour? Just ask - but in person

Mind matters


Patricia Casey

Over the past 50 years, the process of communicating with others has been revolutionised. First the telephone connected people all over the world in a matter of minutes initially and as the technology advanced, seconds.

Telephone conferences have been commonplace for well over a decade and Skype calls are available for most big businesses. Among family and friends Skype is now a common means of visually and verbally communicating with loved ones living away from home. Perhaps the most sophisticated of all is the facility to email. Complex documents such as contracts, manuscripts and legal documents can leave Dublin and moments later reach their destination in Tokyo, Ballinasloe or Lagos. Until the early 90s this would have taken several days by post.

A further development is that within offices employees now frequently communicate using emails rather than telephoning or speaking to each other. Convenience and speed trump the more traditional methods.

But is this really the most effective method of communcation, particularly if you need to ask someone to do something for you?

The work of Prof Vanessa Bohns of Cornell University and Prof Mahdi Roghanizad of Huron University, Canada has shown however, that, when asking favours, face-to-face contact is the most likely way to ensure success.

The results, published a few months ago in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology found a 34-fold difference in the success rate when doing this by face-to-face contact compared to making the request by email. In real numbers this amounts to asking six people in person to achieve the same success as emailing 200. This disparity is because communication consists not only of the words themselves but also the inflection, rhythm, tone and warmth in the voice and the body language of the person making the request.

While the relevant elements in the voice can be picked up in a telephone conversation they are lost in an email.

It is easy to understand why emails are so unsuccessful in persuading other to do favours. Sometimes the email goes to the spam folder, sometimes the recipient doesn't open it, either through disinterest, forgetfulness or suspicion. Then if they do open it they may forget to reply or simply see it as an impersonal request. It's always much easier to turn down a request when you do not have to look the person in eye as you say "no". The absence of visual contact makes the request remote.

The researchers established that while those sending the email request were convinced of the importance of the request and their own trustworthiness, the recipients saw them as unlikely to be genuine and this generated lack of empathy and suspicion about what was being asked.

Realistically there are many situations where face-to-face contact is impossible. A common example is the doctor asking a pharmacist to prescribe medication or a GP making a referral to another professional.

It would clearly be impracticable for personal, face-to-face contact, to take place regarding every patient and so written requests are the only reasonable and safe way to make this happen. Similarly, when dealing with companies transactions cannot be based on gentleman's agreements and have to be formally dispatched.

It is telling that IBM, once a pioneer of working-from-home, has done a volte face and recently told its employees to revert to the clocking-in system at work. The explanation offered was that working with colleagues will enhance creativity and productivity through regular in-person meeting where new ideas can be shared and explored. While this change will horrify those who have campaigned for flexi-time, others will see it as facilitating better working relations. The work of Bohns also suggests that social environments such as the company kitchen or café facilitate communication because they are informal and non-threatening.

The modern office environment with its huge open plan, under the baleful eye of the office manager seated inside a glass-walled office while email messages pass between employees at different ends of the room requesting favours, is hardly an atmosphere conducive to good working relations.

Perhaps it's time for common social graces to emerge from hiding under the weight of modernity so that people can once again walk up to a fellow employee, look them in the eye, smile and ask for a favour. "Please"!

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