Esquire Guy

Why a Phone Call Is Better Than an Email (Usually)

This story appears in the November 2014 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

This isn’t going to be about efficiency. Sometimes the phone is a more efficient way to communicate than e-mail, and sometimes it isn’t. If two people leave a dozen messages on each other’s voice mail, that’s a lot less efficient than sending a single e-mail and reading a reply to it. 

No, this isn’t going to be about how telephonic communication helps you work faster. This is about how the phone makes you work better. Because unlike e-mail, the phone forces you to be more emphatic, more accurate, more honest. 

Tell that to a neuroscientist, and before you’ve even finished the sentence he’ll start laughing—at what you’re saying, and the accompanying emotional gradients. What, you’re not aware of emotional gradients? You have tons of them, and you’re constantly communicating them to people—but only when you speak, not when you write. 

“We’re picking up and processing heard information within 50 milliseconds of someone speaking. A lot of this information doesn’t get processed at a cognitive level,” says Seth Horowitz, an auditory neuroscientist. “Some of the first targets for heard information are emotional substrates, so [when] listening to someone’s voice, you’re picking up emotional gradients from them.” 

Read the following e-mails and consider the emotional gradients that aren’t being conveyed.

From: Corleone, Michael “Don”

To: Staff

Subject: Me

Just when I thought I was out,
they pull me back in! 

Best,

DC

 

From: Gekko, Gordon

To: Fox, Bud

Subject: Lunch

… is for wimps. 

-G

 

From: Blake

To: The Fellas

Subject: Reminder

ABC. A—always. B—be. C—closing.
Always be closing. Always be closing.

Yours in closing,

Blake

 

Joe Huff, co-founder of Los Angeles-based LSTN Headphones, which partners with a nonprofit that provides hearing aids to people in need, is—obviously—a believer in the power of voice. 

“There have been so many times, a new store or account or potential press relationship, we’ve gotten on the phone with them and after the conversation, even [after] just a 15-minute story about what we do and why, they say, ‘Wow, I read everything on your website, but to hear you tell it, there’s a huge difference.’ Because we have a passion-based business, it’s really important for us to get that across.”

This happens all the time in business. Yet we are still wary of picking up the phone. We don’t want to bother people. We think they don’t want to talk. And maybe they don’t. But you’re not ever going to find that out through e-mail. You’ll find it out on the phone. If they stammer, hedge and pause, then you have valuable information. Maybe not the information you were looking for, but valuable info nonetheless. 

THE MEANING OF SILENCE

Speaking of pausing, it’s important to remember that some of the most valuable information comes from the pauses in a phone conversation. Pauses that simply don’t exist in written communication.

Says Horowitz: “There have been studies that show that if you’re presenting a listener with a series of words or
tones, and you take an extended silence, certain populations of cells in their brains start looking for the signal, and if it doesn’t happen in a certain period of time, it triggers arousal centers, emotional centers. Silence is an important part of communication, and something people don’t pay attention to.”

Our obsession with e-mail denies a crucial truth about human beings: that we have evolved as listeners, not as readers. Here’s Horowitz again—and as you read this paragraph, think about how much more powerful it would be if this guy were talking to you on the phone: 

“We think about ourselves as being the new smartest rulers of the planet, but our ears have evolved, and a basic brain circuitry of hearing has evolved over 400 million years, and a lot of it centered on hearing the sound of your own species. That’s the most important signal, even if you can’t see them. Hearing evolved as your alarm system, because we’re diurnal, we don’t see well at night, but our hearing is running all through the darkness and even when we are asleep. A sound, even without a visual tie to it, is very important to us. We’ve evolved to listen to other people talk.”

Edition: December 2016

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