Email, Telephone, or Face-to-Face Contact?

Eight years ago, I did my best to switch each client that I worked with from telephone calls to email as the primary communication format. Today, there are many times when I read an email and pick up the phone instead of emailing back. The trade-off where I gave up a degree of personal contact for increased efficiency, clarity, and permanent documentation did not always deliver the promised benefits.

New technology always brings some sort of distance into interactions, even while making new types of interactions possible. Emile Durkheim, a founder of the discipline of sociology, recognized this fact when studying the change from “segmental” or local markets to national or global markets during the Industrial Revolution (Beniger, 1986). Each individual no longer traded directly with the others in a single village. Slowly our society has added distance in communications, allowing for more connections over physical distance, but losing some information along the way. The telephone allows for interactions between people at the same time, regardless of location, but they no longer see each other’s faces and expressions. Using email, people can communicate with one person or many other people. Emails can be kept and referenced for information indefinitely. They can be written quickly and sent from anywhere as long as there is internet access. However, they lose the tone and inflections of speech and are not bound by time or place.

Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff believe that “Speech still depends heavily on nonlanguage communication to provide contextual information, a fact rediscovered many times for the telegraph, the telephone, and most recently computer networks” (Beniger, 1986). Stacey Hanke, a communications expect and author, says “You can get so much context from a facial expression or a tone of voice” (Van Tan, 2012). Researchers Rich Mayer and Scott DePra also found that “the ‘human touch’ is so powerful it can improve computer-based learning” (Willingham, 2012). Their study found that an avatar, demonstrating social cues including “gesturing, changing posture, facial expression, changes in eye gaze, and lip movements synchronized to speech,” helped students to learn at a higher level than an avatar without social cues or no avatar at all (Willingham, 2012). It seems that even a few elements of personal interaction or human touch are beneficial for communications and learning.

Creators and users of technology seem to appreciate this as well. Writers use emoticons to provide context and a sense of tone in emails, texts, and other typed communications. Skype and FaceTime provide the benefits of telephone calls, plus the advantages of being able to see the other person while talking, in real time. Many social networking sites incorporate instant chat features, allowing users to communicate in real time. Devices that do not facilitate communication between individuals also recognize a need for the ‘human touch.’ GPS, Kindle, and Siri all use a human-sounding voice to interact with the user. Many, though not all, of these automated voices are actually based on voice recordings of humans (Griggs, 2011).

It seems that technology and human interactions may be cyclical. New technology provides ways to interact despite physical or time differences, but in return it limits the amount and type of information conveyed. As this information is increasingly seen as important, new types of technology or ways of working with the old technology are developed in order to retain some of the lost information.

I am happy that my company’s web site now allows clients to make reservations online and that the vast majority of them now primarily email me. However, sometimes words on a screen do not convey enough information or I cannot wait an unknown amount of time for an answer. I still need to use the telephone or in-person meetings until my company adopts technology that will provide technological advantages without losing the benefits of direct, personal contact.

Beniger, James R. The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1986.

Van Tran, Robin. “You Can’t Skype This: Why Face to Face Matters.” QSR. 12 October, 2012. Web. 19 October, 2012. <>

Willingham, Daniel. “The “human touch” in computer-based instruction.” David Willingham: Science and Education Blog. 12 September, 2012. Web. 18 October, 2012. <>

Griggs, Brandon. “Why computer voices are mostly female.” CNN Tech. 21 October, 2011. Web. 19 October, 2012. <>


Emily Muth

Emily Muth is a former Master's candidate in Communication, Culture, and Technology at Georgetown and the Lead Blogger for gnovis. Her academic focus is on the strategic use of social media and digital communications. She loves to read, travel, and post photos of delicious food.

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