Internet Chat in Practice

Sarah Hobday-North , 25 November 2019

As online chat gains popularity, and boundaries between home and work become blurred, how do we take advantage of quick, easy communication without compromising our work or our mental health? Sarah Hobday-North explores the issues.

In September 2019 the Australian Institute of Architects updated its practice note on “Communications” to include social media and text messaging, confirming that the use of digital communication tools such as SMS, MMS, WhatsApp and WeChat have entered the mainstream of architectural practice, as they have in business everywhere.

What I think the practice note is really describing is the popularity of tools that allow us to “chat” in private conversation threads with clients and consultants, as distinct from other web tools that allow us to “tweet”, “post” or “send” updates to our public network. Chat is an intersection between social media and text messaging that has been enabled by our ubiquitous smartphones and now we have our clients, as well as our friends, in our pockets.

As boundaries are so easily blurred, we need more discussion on the use of chat so that we might make appropriate decisions for its use in practice beyond the etiquette guides. What we are dealing with is nothing less that a new genre of professional communication.

A New Tool for Professional Communications

Whether you frequently communicate with clients via text chat, or only receive them reluctantly, you are participating in an explosion of informal written communication. And it is new. Taking the practice notes as a timeline, social media already appears in the Institute’s practice notes as an HR consideration (updated June 2018) and as a marketing tool (updated August 2018). Text messaging can also be used to send marketing of course. Occasionally I receive notification of a wine sale (thank you very much) or a bathroom fixtures sale that I might in turn forward to a client. But a marketing application of text messaging is less suited to architectural practice which, traditionally, has much less of a sales aspect than other businesses. Perhaps this will change, but to date it doesn’t get a practice note. Instead, social media and text messaging, which I am identifying together as the phenomenon of chat, has been added to the “Communications practice note. And rightly so. Chat as a communication tool is not just for the moonlighting job you’re doing for a friend, and it’s not just for saying “I’ll be five minutes late”. Chat is a new tool for professional communication online.

Digital Communication by Generation

Online communication is a phenomenon explored in detail by Gretchen McCulloch in her book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, published in 2019. To help break this down, McCulloch identifies groups with different styles of digital communication, from Pre-Internet and Semi-Internet People (probably the office directors) to Post-Internet People (probably the office graduates). The project architects in the middle would probably be what she dubs “Full Internet People”, having grown up communicating with MSN Messenger, ICQ, Livejournal, MySpace and the early years of Facebook. This generation have had a different cultural experience on the internet to those born just 10 years earlier, which may be why your client wants to set up a WhatsApp group with you to keep track of the project. What would you say and how would you manage it?

Navigating Informal Communication at Work

As we’ve moved in time through the 2010s, chat tools have made informal writing a mainstay of our communication world. In the history of human communications, this is new. Until relatively recently we have all been quite comfortable with formal writing (including email) and informal speech. A letter is a letter, an email is an email, and a phone call is something you’d better confirm with an email before you commit staff time to a verbal instruction from the client. Right? But how many of us have received something like this in the last year or two?

            Yep, go ahead with option 2.

 Or

            I’ve had another thought about the courtyard…can we make it a bit bigger? :-o  

There’s a lot going on here and there are a lot of decisions to make about how to respond. Without even getting to the content of these messages, the receiving architect needs to consider: 

  • Do I respond using the same platform as the message was received? (SMS, WhatsApp, etc)
  • If so, do I follow the sender’s lead in language style or not?
  • Should I be recording a backup of the raw message in the project file? How?
  • If this is being received on my private phone (that I’m expected to also use for work), does that matter?
  • Might chat be the easiest way to communicate with a client interstate or overseas?

Then there is the issue of expectation of response times. Chat is instant. If one party sends a question via text, it usually means that they expect an instant answer, or at least an instant acknowledgement. A delay may be interpreted as a snub, and we don’t want our Full-Internet client to vent their frustration to their friends and wreck our referral network. (omg I’m being IGNORED and I’m paying all this MONEY $$$ arrrrrghhhhh)

What is the Meaning of All This?

We can look to the pre-internet past for a bit of guidance here. In his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan coined the famous phrase, “the medium is the message”This means that the channel through which a message is transmitted is more important than the meaning or content of the message. So, to adapt his theory a little to our needs, if you send a professional letter, the real message is that this communication is to be taken quite seriously. If you send an email, the real message is that this communication is important and probably warrants prompt (but not instant) attention. If you send a text message or chat, the real message is that this is really important to the sender right now and an instant response is wanted (hence the content of the message had best not be too complicated). If you have a verbal exchange by phone or video app, the real message is that the question or issue at hand requires interpersonal exchange to progress, perhaps even a measure of respect that this implies. And gosh, if you send a fax, the real message is probably either “I’m still working in 1985” or “I’ve actually read the contract...”

Of course, there will be exceptions to the above tableaus in some contexts or in different work cultures, but the principle is universal: choose the appropriate platform for the type of communication you wish to send. As Gretchen McCulloch outlines in her book, chat has become so popular in our personal lives that it has started replacing email or phone communication. Away from work it might be easier to manage this blurring of communication boundaries. However, in our professional lives we’re expected to be on our best behaviour and be aware that how we communicate with clients and contractors has a bearing on many things, from legal risk, to project outcomes, to our professional image.

The Pros and Cons of an Instant Ping

But why would we want to welcome another “ping” of distraction into our work environments? Do we really need the additional pressure and potential effects on our mental health? For the value of chat is in its immediacy and your ability to be available. But then, the telephone plays a similar role. (RING RING! Tell ‘em I’m in a meeting!)

Chat gives us one safety net in the “read” feature, by which the sender can see when we have and when we have not seen the message. If you haven’t seen the message, the sender can’t reasonably expect a reply. In this case, ignorance and a bit of discipline can provide a degree of bliss until you are ready to check. Just as we (should) set aside time to attend to email and social media, we can do the same for text and chat.

But there are advantages to an instant “ping”. In a short twitter survey I conducted, half of all respondents sent a text before starting a video call. Another 17% preferred the telephone to check in before making the face-to-face connection (also instant… RING RING!). An instant chat message is a contemporary courtesy enabled by the internet and possibly the reason why video calling didn’t catch on sooner – we want to be prepared for face to face meetings to ensure we have the appropriate content prepared and that we don’t have parsley in our teeth. 

The Nuance of Text Messaging

Let’s return to the Institute’s practice notes and what it actually says. It suggests that “care should be taken to record important [chat] messages, and to follow up key decisions with written correspondence – such as an email or Architect’s Instruction.” This illustrates the added complexity of written communication, as we now have to distinguish between informal and formal writing, and confirm the intent of the former with the latter. Although chat is written communication, in use it has more in common with speech than with a letter. It is, after all, a chat. A thought. A quick exchange.

But in a less trivial “he-said-she-said” scenario, a chat thread can be looked back on and scrutinised in a way a phone call can’t. This is a tricky situation. In speech we have the elements of context, gesture and tone to help convey our true meaning, and real-time feedback to ensure (hopefully) that we are being understood. Text messaging is similarly immediate and informal but the messages remain frozen in time while our memories of the exact context change. This means simply recording your chat conversations in their raw format (via screenshots as suggested by the Institute, or by “exporting” them as a file that can be downloaded) may not be adequate to later prove your or the other party’s intent. As McCulloch explains in Because Internet, courts in the US have already grappled with the interpretation of a smiley emoji – was it a happy smile, or was it intended as an ironic smirk, making the message a joke? Possibly we are encouraged to record our chats simply because we can. No one has ever suggested recording all your phone calls to the project file. Never mind that it could be illegal in some parts of the country. As with a phone call, formal communication can be utilised to confirm intent wherever that is likely to have an effect on the project and the process.

The explosion in informal written communications means that, both personally and professionally, we are more reachable and more approachable than ever before. They can make aspects of professional life easier and even more polite. Just because these communications are in writing, however, does not mean they are equivalent to formal written communications. Discipline in their use and above all selecting the most appropriate communication medium for the message at hand is essential. I hope the conversation about the use of chat continues, as it is here to stay and its use needs to be taken seriously in practice.

Sarah Hobday-North is a registered architect and creator of the Value Architects Group. She diagnoses, untangles and fixes spatial problems for community groups and individuals with affordable architectural services. She also loves singing 500-year-old choral music. 

Photo: William Iven, Unsplash

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