I recently searched "thanks" and "thank you" in my e-mail archives and attempted to count how many messages I had sent and received that were simply cordial. There were too many to count. I was astonished by the sheer quantity of e-mail traffic generated by simple sentiments.
To be fair, there's no crime in being nice. In fact, e-mail can be a great way of expressing gratitude. However, I think such notes should be sent with intention rather than just habit or ritual. The majority of the e-mails I sorted through seemed pointless. Quite frankly, they were clutter.
In the old days of communication, when people still relied on the phone, this was never a problem. Why? Because making a phone call requires a certain level of intention and investment of energy. If you took the time to make a call (or write a letter) to thank someone, it was heartfelt and likely received in similar light. However, the ease of sending and receiving messages has given rise to a modern era problem that I call "habitual sentiment."
Habitual sentiment is not thoughtful, on the contrary, it is thoughtless. The ease of sending and receiving messages without event thinking them has given rise to a new type of communication that is both impulsive and habit forming.
One way we can escape habitual sentiment is by adopting new modes of communication that don't allow it. Perhaps this is one of the most appreciated elements of Twitter? With a 140-character limit, we're forced to remove the niceties. There are no greetings or sign-offs. It's just the message, and nothing more. And if we follow a stream of someone’s thoughts that is too noisy, we simply unfollow it.
How do we curb habitual sentiment and keep communication sacred?
Our team has spent some time thinking about the problem on the email front. Our team recently published an article entitled "E-mail Etiquette for the Super-Busy" that includes a number of tips like "Never 'reply all' (unless you absolutely must)," "Use 'FYI' for emails that have no actionable information," and "Communicate 'action steps' first, not last." But beyond email, we must start weighing the impulse to commentate on everything we see. Like the ancient wisdom "less is more," perhaps we should commentate less and seek to make our messages less frequent and more potent.
We must also keep in mind the many forms of communication we have at our disposal and choose wisely for specific situations. In another AMEX Open Forum post I proposed the "5 Levels of Communication In A Connected World" and tried to make a case for various levels of communication and what sorts of messages should be delivered at what level. Thoughtfulness in communication is not only how about the medium we choose, but also the timing and location.
The best chance of reducing the noise is to do so collectively. If your team makes a shared attempt to communicate thoughtfully, then the niceties won't be missed.
This article is based on research by Behance CEO Scott Belsky, whose new book, Making Ideas Happen, is a Wall Street Journal bestseller. Behance runs the Behance Creative Network, the 99% productivity think tank, the Action Method project management application, and the Creative Jobs List.