Saturday, April 14, 2007

Situation Normal All Not Fouled Up

What is the essence of business communication? Reporting exceptions. The fire-alarm goes off in case of a fire. The alarm does not ring when there is not a fire. Our systems - and I don't mean just software or hardware systems - are mostly designed for exceptions, not normalcy. Thank goodness, or we would be buried under the sheer volume of "normal" data and events.

The first time I ever saw weather forecast on TV (in India), it just seemed wrong. What really was the point of reporting (and hearing) "mausam khushkh rahega" every day for five months? Weather forecasting is a necessity in America, with its micro-climates, rapidly changing weather patterns and the sheer number of people on the road and in the skies. Should I pack a sweater or not is what I want to know.

The reason I am writing about this is because of an email I recently received from this guy working on my team. The subject line read "availability for next week" and email said something about "being onsite" and "week of April 23". So I interpreted it to mean he was out of office for that particular week, not paying any attention to the phrase "being onsite". But I also knew he had agreed to be in the office for the next couple of weeks, so I had to re-read a two-line email about four times to make sure I really understood it.

Not surprisingly, or surprisingly - I am not sure which - nearly everyone who received that email misread it. Circuits tripped. One of them even shot an email back - "I wasn't aware you were taking time off!".

So if there is an expectation - default state? Or exception state? - for all our conversations and interactions, are we just focused on this expectation and not to what is actually being said?

Let's take another example. What is the context of a couple's conversation? Are they expected to say "I feel immense love for you in this very moment and promise to never leave your side" and repeat it every time they talk (default) or say "I don't really feel any love for you right now at this moment" (exception)?

The default is sweet but lacks surprise. The words and the context are stripped of their power by repetition. It's the "have a nice day" syndrome. Why don't people say "please avoid having a terrible day"? It could be more effective, you know.

The exception report, in the couple's case, is nasty, though it could also keep the couple guessing - i.e., "how would he or she feel towards me in the next moment?"

I say let's trip everyone's circuits by flipping the context.

"Officer, I do not plead guilty to a crime I did not commit". "Dear boss, my distant cousin is not getting married so I am not going to miss work on the day of the World Cup Finals". "Dear boss, my grandmother is hale and hearty and because there is no funeral to attend, I will be at work everyday for the next 6 months".

And of course, "Honey, I got the milk".


MockTurtle said...

"Honey, I got the milk". You too?

Tabula Rasa said...

milk and honey?

km said...

TR: vital ingredients in all my breakfast recipes.

MT: that's the way the cookie crumbles, right?

Ph said...

Or being asked, 'why are your teeth crooked,' in an otherwise very romantic setting. Flipping circuits should not attempted. Gah.