“Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance”

The bizarre message above was the probably apocryphal corruption of a World War 1 signal that should have read: “Send reinforcements. We’re going to advance”. 

Incidentally, how much was three and fourpence? Answer – 16p, about half what you’d now need to use the loo at Paddington on your way to the party! Only the over 40’s in the UK remember the introduction of decimal currency (on 15th February 1971). The under 40’s and the rest of the world’s population struggle to understand how we could have ever bothered with 20 shillings to the pound, and 12 pence to the shilling. 

Miscommunication is a major enemy of good decision making. Clarity is everything – and we all understand that. So how do wires get so crossed, so often? 

I think email has a lot to answer for. We completely rely on it. But if you think about it, email works differently from any kind of mass communication we used before:

  • It is not basically designed for a conversation (like a meeting or telephone call)
  • It is a convenient way for me to ask a question while at the same time giving the answer – or at least my spin on that answer
  • If you and I enter into a two way email dialogue, we will be as concerned to register our own point of view as to find out what the other thinks
  • Pre-internet, we used to write letters to each other – often for the same reason. But the pace of mail delivery determined a much longer time frame – usually too slow to be described as a dialogue. We simply had to meet or talk on the phone if we wanted to move things forward in real time

Texting is subtly different, because of the restriction on the number of characters you can use. It’s also – even in a business context – more intimate. An exchange of SMS is like a version of a telephone call, with the contributions from either side staggered for convenience.

So why do I say that email often leads to miscommunication? Mainly because it is a talking medium, not a listening medium. If I am more concerned to tell you what I think, than listen to what you think, that’s a recipe for those crossed wires we looked at earlier.

Not a great outcome in a two person dialogue. But it can be a disaster if participants in an important decision process are using email to disseminate and compare views – which happens all the time.

Mistakes, misunderstanding and miscommunications arising from such situations will cost a lot more than three and fourpence to resolve.