Communication is an exchange of ideas and emotions. When working remotely, our primary vehicle for communication is text. Is this healthy? We’ll look into a few passive aggressive manifestations to better prepare ourselves for the weird feelings Slack might give us. Then, we’ll see how we can do better.
You may have heard the adage that: “over 90% communication is non-verbal”. The original study by Albert Mehrabian describes a 55%/38%/7% formula to describe human communication. 55% of our communication, Albert and his colleagues claim, happens non-verbally, 38% occurs through tone of voice, while a meagre 7% happens through words. Considering this, it seems that remote workers may have quite an awkward social existence!
The study itself, while interesting, can’t be accurate. During research, the experiment isolated the delivery of single words using differing tones and presentation styles. Mehrabian and Co’s definition of communication exists in a laboratory context; it doesn’t represent natural conversation in a wild environment like a technical work place.
While the rigid percentage breakdown they gleaned is far-fetched, it is tough to argue that text-based communication captures the full flavour and intent of the thoughts we try to express to our peers.
Growing up in text based worlds like IRC and working remotely for near two decades, I have seen many adaptations as people adjust to environments that lack non-verbal communication and visceral social structure. My experiences lead me to believe that a deficiency of presence, body language and tonality exacerbates common forms of passive-aggressive and anxiety-laced behaviour.
Anxiety can be useful. It helps us be alert when things feel wrong. Without anxiety, our ancestors would have lounged right into the gaping maws of an opportunistic predator. When anxiety triggers and persists for benign reasons it becomes a crippling affliction. Anxiety without danger is suffering. The fear, ceaseless apprehension, and lack of ease can control your life.
Modern technology moves at merciless speed. We work deep hours. Our phones hover next to us, capable of commanding us back to work with the simple wriggling of a motor or distracting us from focus. Command us, distract us and flood us it does.
The technological trade quickly advances. Another year, two more technologies to learn. A limitless supply of carrots: sprints, pager duty, funding rounds. It is challenging to find your place; you may feel Imposter Syndrome or suffer burnout. In the path of this flood, you - if you are trying to dance on the bleeding edge - are, by any traditional definition, neurotic.
A Thousand Words
So, here you are, dwarfed in your ability to express yourself in full to the humans that idle in your chat channels and in an environment uniquely suited to rev your thinker into anxious over-drive. To prepare for the cerebral onslaught, let’s look at some of the shadier mental patterns that can churn behind your eyelids when you interact with screens instead of people.
Attribution Theory (Paper)
Mythological Maxwell made another breaking change to the code base. It happens all the time. Maxwell is distractible and lazy. He doesn’t take the time to better his skills and thus breaks production on a weekly basis. This unfair judgement is called internal attribution. We consider Maxwell’s failings a result of Maxwell; he has full control over the situation but is characteristically limited.
When we make mistakes, we feel it must be for reasons other than our personal traits. Things broke because the code is ancient or the test coverage was lacking; you’re the responsible one, anyone would have broken it had they the initiative that you do. When evaluating ourselves, we default to external attribution. We like to believe that our failings happen as a result of our lack of control of external factors, not because of our character.
False Consensus (Paper)
We’re pack animals. We love to assume that those we associate with are just like us. When you sit at a football game among the legions eating a hot dog, drinking a stadium beer, and wearing cheese as a hat, you would expect most conversations to be agreeable. You’d naturally assume similar political beliefs and lifestyle choices; we’re the good guys, of course we all think, act, and vote the same. Little do you know the fellow next to you is eating a vegetarian hot dog, took the bus to the stadium, speaks no English and is visiting from Switzerland.
Remote teams tend to be nation-wide, if not international. You likely work with many different cultures and thinking styles. Each person is going to hold a completely separate view than your own. Take care when using cultural idiosyncrasies and be wary when assuming that everyone will share your geopolitical, social, or cultural alignments. Speaking styles, computing styles, typing styles: all regions have their own quirks!
Availability Heuristic (Paper)
Recency causes us to suggest that the latest events happen more often than they actually do. Just because someone corrected you or made a made a mistake does not mean they always do. It is easy for us to generate a label based on something that just happened. It’s important to look at the big picture before dolling out judgement that will affect your relationship long-term.
Ahh, the big one. Throughout all my text-based living, I see projection as the dagger in the dark. Projection occurs when an individual bestows significance upon an interaction because it drums up internalized insecurities.
Here are a different few scenarios:
Bill went through a nasty break-up. His lady did him wrong. A friend of his, Albert, just met someone special. Instead of being supportive and understanding that a budding romance is a tangle of infinite possibilities, Bill tells his friend that his new companion seems “untrustworthy” and “cold”. Bill is projecting his run-in with a bad lady-apple on Albert’s new flame.
Next we have Sarah. Sara is a beast in Overwatch, the PC game. Her friend Britt is also a beast in Overwatch. Sarah works a high-paying technical job and wants to refer Britt. She thinks that because Britt is great at Overwatch, like her, that she’ll be a good fit at her work place. In reality, Britt is a poor worker. She spends all day playing games!
Sara is putting complimentary projections onto Britt. She loves gaming - perhaps a bit too much - and she wants to believe that everyone who spends 8 hours a day slaying virtual combatants can be fully capable in an advanced job.
And finally, one such occurrence that I see play out time and time again in the remote world:
There is a ruling class in the remote work scene and it is those who code well. Folks in Marketing, Support, Sales, and other “non-technical” roles are all exposed to the common opinion that suggests those who want great pay and job security would be wise learn to code if they want to stay remote for the long-haul.
Meet Marketer Molly. Molly has worked her tail off learning to code. She’s been to several bootcamps and has been contributing to open-source for a year. She’s ready to move into a development role. Support Salazar is somewhat technically inclined and thinks it’s time he and his natural aptitude were offered a development role. Unfortunately for Sal, he’s no coder. He despises Molly!
Everything she does drives him nuts. “She’s always trying to help people with technical things and she *barely knows what she’s doing*”, he fumes. Salazar’s spite has nothing to do with Molly. He’s projecting his technical insecurities onto Molly and lashing out at them.
We looked at four things that pop-up when humans interact - not just remotely – in any interaction! When you’re working remotely, however, you get a mere fraction of someone. You may find as anxiety and disgruntlement bubble up that they stem from cognitive biases that you can observe, let go, and steer yourself away from.
You have ultimate control when creating the characters that match the text-y figures in your work environment. To prevent yourself from conjuring rivals out of thin air, it helps to be aware of what happens outside of your conscious awareness.
Remote work is privilege but we need to be careful. Many accept the well-known remote drawbacks of isolation and inertia. To remedy them, they’ll go to co-working spaces or take walks in the park. Leading-edge companies train their employees how to identify subconscious biases. This is a great start, but we can do better.
To prevent your work environment from turning into a melting pot of leaking stress and unfair projection, meet up in person often, have unstructured video chats for fun, and - most importantly - reduce the significance of the conversational text that you read. Words alone leave much to be desired; with just text, it’s even easier to misinterpret meaning and invent intention. For the sake of your own mental health and that of your team mates, take a deep breath and challenge your ruminations.