Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

A three panel strip: 1) pushing “hello!”, 2) the letters of hello become jumbled, 3) out of order, collapsed.
Communication is a mess in the best of times. Doing at a distance is even harder.

The motive is the message

The theme of this post is about transparency of motive in communication, so it only make sense that I’m transparent about mine: I’m bored, I find thinking about things stimulating, I like sharing ideas and seeing people’s reactions, and I find making silly illustrations calming. Enjoy!

I’ve been communicating online more than ever. And I’m sure I’m not alone. We all have more emails, posts, notifications, chats, and video conferences than ever, as we’ve rapidly shifted nearly all of our communication to computer-mediated forms.

And with that shift has come many predictable failures (at least for those familiar with the expansive literature on computer-mediated communication). We overlook the context of conversations. We forget overlook each others’ identities. We make assumptions about shared understanding that turn into confusion. We choose words poorly, which hurts feelings. We forget, in all of these cases, how important non-verbal information is for conveying emotions, understanding, agreement, and trust.

And while different media have different affordances for conveying this critical emotional information — Slack is better than email at emoji, video is better than Slack at laughter, phone is better than video at intimacy—I’ve come to think over the past month of struggling to communicate that these differences in media are not the most critical bits.

The most critical bit—and the part that we’ve always failed at, independent of medium—is conveying motive. Why are we communicating? What is our purpose? What does our message have to do with our purpose? So often, we obscure motive in our communication, and it’s that lack of transparent motive is that erodes trust, understanding, and agreement. The medium matters, but only in that computer-mediated communication can further obscure motive, hiding all of those non-verbal cues that we use to infer it.

I’ll give an example. Recently, I was trying to set up some positions for some summer undergraduate researchers. My motive was pretty simple: I want to pay them stipends so they can sustain their summers financial, learn with us, and help us make discoveries in our lab. There were some complications of course — they are not students at our university, and so there was some problem solving for our staff to do to figure out how to pay them stipends. When I first read the reply from my staff about this, it first sounded like they were saying there was no way to do this. I fired off an email, saying there must be a way. They fired back, and said there might be a way. I fired back and showed them that other universities have ways, so there must be a way. My rapid fire responses were more a product of me just being in the middle of clearing my inbox, not due to frustration, or urgency, or anything else.

But soon after, I realized a few critical communication failures. First, my motive wasn’t clear. I need to hire them by June, and I wanted them to figure out how to make that possible, but there is still 6 weeks to figure it out. As long as they could find a compliant way to do it, I was satisfied. Second, their motive wasn’t clear. I had originally thought their motive was to say no — as many staff often do when faced with enforcing compliance— but when I re-read their messages, what they were really doing was analyzing, brainstorming, and surfacing constraints. They were just doing that in front of me, rather than doing it amongst themselves, and I misinterpreted their brainstorming as dismissal.

How could it have gone? I could have been clearer about my timeline and its lack of urgency. (They were assuming it was urgent because most faculty requests are last-minute, and therefore urgent). And they could have been clearer about the goal of their messages. (They were problem solving with each other, not telling me no). Eventually, one of the staff found the appropriate mechanism for paying the stipend, and so my problem was solved. But in the process, I think I made my staff feel mistreated and stressed, and they made me feel like they were unwilling to problem solve to find a solution. Trust, eroded. (If you’re reading this, sorry HR, I will do better next time!)

From now on, I’m going to try a new practice when I write in computer-mediated forms, I’m going to follow a few new practices:

  • Before I write a message, really think carefully about my motive, and try to express it as part of the message. It might be a bit robotic, but at least it might prevent misinterpretations.
  • When I read a message, try to infer the motive before reading, and when replying, remember that my inference might be wrong.

Both of these practices try to make a bit of space for misinterpretation, and a bit of grace for stressful times.

I noticed this strategy by watching the great leaders around me do the same thing in these recent times of crisis. My dean, our provost, our president, our mayor in Seattle, and our governor of Washington state, have been exceptionally good at communication. They take the time to plan their messages; they make their motivations clear (our health and safety). They respond with patience when people’s messages to them are less than constructive. They’re really doing the two things above, just at a grander scale, and probably with the help of outstanding communication teams.

I wish these practices translated to our federal leadership. Unfortunately, the motives of our president, our senate majority leader, and our supreme court justices have never been less clear. When Trump says “The whole concept of the light, the way it kills it in one minute, that’s pretty powerful” in reference to COVID-19 cures, why is he saying that? Is he trying to convey that he’s on top of the crisis? That we should have hope? That he knows smart scientists? Or that we have nothing to worry about because he’s in charge? Who knows. I rarely find the motives in his messages clear. I’m left to assume that his motive is what it always seems to be: receive praise and win to prop up a fragile, narcissistic ego. Certainly not our health and safety.

Like with all things, this pandemic is making our failures as people, as countries, and as a global community clearer than ever. We’ve never been great at communication, and our increased reliance on computing is amplifying that. That just means we all have to work a bit harder to be clear, and I think that means making our motives more clear.

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This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Amy J. Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on our individual and collective struggle to understand computing and harness it for justice. See our work at https://faculty.washington.edu/ajko

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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.

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