Communicating on eggshells
October 09, 2019
Why has robust debate died in professional communication circles? Did we stop caring, or did we stop daring?
It's said that in an unhappy marriage, loud arguments frequently erupt or cold silences commence because in an unhappy marriage, everything is about everything. "Pass the salt" means, "You think I'm a terrible cook." "I'd rather not go until Christmas Eve" means, "You hate my family." "Let's wait til next month to buy the duvet cover" means, "You don't trust me with money!"
These days, all of society feels like that unhappy marriage. We are reading serious articles advising us on safe topics of conversation at family dinners. And professionally, we focus our human imaginations on the art of being amusing, yet sufficiently banal that no one could object.
The most reliable way I can witness this change is from my own little world, of corporate communication. For the first 10 or 15 years that I hung around in this business—roughly the early 1990s to the mid 2000s—professional arguments were robust, common, and often fun. These civilized wars took place first in the opinion columns and letters-to-the-editor sections of our communication trade newsletters and at industry conferences, then on rudimentary Internet forums with names like PRSIG, and eventually in the comments sections of blogs written by professional communicators.
Some of the hot-button issues at the time may sound esoteric to people outside the profession, but they seemed high-stakes inside it. Who does an employee want to hear from first: his or her direct supervisor, or the CEO? Should employee publications continue to publish personal stories about employees and their hobbies, or should strategic communicators put away childish things? Is the news release dead? Is print dead? Is upward communication dead? Is face-to-face communication dead? Is it possible to quantify the bottom-line impact of communication? Is a particular communication ethics principle worth quitting your job over?
These and dozens of other topics regularly generated sometimes noisy debates, and occasionally deafening donnybrooks characterized by accusations like, "You just set employee communication back 30 years." There were bruised feelings. There were participants so stubborn and tunnel-visioned that they might now be called "trolls." And there was seldom resolution.
But there was something that amounted to an ongoing and slowly evolving philosophical dialogue on the nature and purpose of organizational communication.
Now, unless in my own tunnel-vision, I fail to know its location, there is little such debate.
I think people had more job security when those debates were taking place, and so were less fearful of burning a bridge and thus more willing to risk rubbing a colleague the wrong way or expressing an unpopular opinion. They had a professional reputation to maintain, but not a precious "personal brand" to protect.
A related reality: Because they had a stronger, longer, deeper connection to their employers, I think people cared more—about their institutions, and about the profession they worked in—and were more inclined to the spend time and spill blood on these kinds of disputes, because they mattered more.
But maybe more importantly, arguing about communication, back then, wasn't arguing about everything. For instance, I could (and frequently did) have a public argument with technology guru Shel Holtz about our widely differing degrees of belief in the information superhighway as a solution to age-old communication ills.
(This is what Shel and I looked like at the time—he Bud Cort from Harold & Maude, me Lee Harvey Oswald.)
Anyway—in those days, Shel and I could go at it hook and tong without either of us even thinking of broadening the argument to something like, "Well of course you would think that, because [your politics, your virtue-signaling, your function as an unthinking tool of the great oligarchy]." No. An argument about communication was an argument about communication, and it had to be won, lost or tied on its own merits. And it didn't risk the whole relationship.
The boundaries! The manners! The seriousness!
Doesn't it sound like I'm describing the peculiar cultural mores of the Edwardians? But it was only 15 years ago that these debates began to dwindle in the number and diversity of debaters. They were engaged by fewer working practitioners and left mostly to pundits like me and consultants whose public engagement is a natural part of our practice.
When did the professional debate begin to blink out entirely? Maybe it was about the time that the 2008 recession scared the professional bejeezus out of everyone and left us huddled together on LinkedIn right in the middle of a U.S. presidential election that polarized the country in new ways.
In any case, I can't remember the last time I had—on this blog, or on any other—a really lively exchange of ideas about communication.
Did we stop caring?
Or did we stop daring to bring anything up, for fear that we might bring everything up?
Seriously, my friends: Let's talk about it. —DM