Firefighter communication: Keep texting in context

The potential problem with texting as a substitute for other forms of communication is that it is extremely low context

You need to communicate with someone right away. How will you do it? If you are like most people today, your first impulse will be to pick up your phone and send a text message.

Younger people are particularly likely to choose texting as a preferred communication method. For them, email is just too much trouble, and actually talking to someone on the phone? Forget about it.

Texting has much to recommend it. As a communication medium it is fast, easy, and can be done from almost anywhere. Unlike phone conversations, there are few privacy issues with those around you.

AP Photo/Matt Sayles

AP Photo/Matt Sayles

Unlike email, there is no need for a wireless hotspot. Texting provides instant connection and gratification. It seems like the perfect way to communicate in the 21st century.

Or is it? There is no doubt that texting has its place, and has thus been embraced by younger and older workers alike. For some younger people, texting is a way of life, and they may exchange dozens or hundreds of text messages with others in a single day, but never once talk on the telephone or see one another.

Extremely low context
The potential problem with texting as a substitute for other forms of communication is that it is extremely low context. All communication is a combination of the content of the actual message and the context within which the message is conveyed.

Context includes where and when the communication takes place, the tone of voice used, facial expression, body language, and other nonverbal factors that influence how the content is understood.

Both elements of communication are important, but studies show that context is especially important when the message is complex, potentially disturbing, or related to stressful decisions. For these types of communication, the context of the communication may be even more important than the factual content.

For example, imagine you are on an emergency scene with another officer. You're under stress and you need a piece of equipment immediately so you rudely yell at the other officer to get you what you need.

You hear later from other people that the other officer was offended by the way you treated him at the scene. You also feel bad about it. What is the best way to follow up?

You could send that officer a text or email saying that you are sorry and didn't mean to yell at him. And depending on the situation, that might be enough.

But if a relationship really needs to be repaired, texting is not the way to do it. The lack of context will potentially undermine the message and make it look like you're only going through the motions. Sincerity is hard to gauge in text messages.

The most difficult conversations should always happen face-to-face. Whether it is giving a performance review, offering an apology, or holding someone accountable for bad behavior, the context of the communication is critical.

Facial expression, tone of voice, and body language are all extremely powerful aspects of communication that are missing from lower context communication methods like texting.

Texting and other low-context, convenient communication methods are great for many things. However, it is also possible to hide behind this type of communication. Some managers refuse to communicate in any way other than texting, citing its convenience and speed.

Insisting on only using low-context communication methods can be a way of avoiding confrontation and difficult yet necessary conversations.

Urgency is also hard to convey through low-context communication. Nothing conveys urgency more than tone of voice and the look on someone's face when dealing with a critical situation. There are times when communication is all context and no words need to be used at all.

As a company officer, you live side-by-side with your coworkers. You have direct contact with people from other stations or agencies. The opportunity exists to develop high quality relationships based on effective and empathetic communication.

Texting may be part of this process, but keep it in its place. There is still no substitute for picking up the phone, or better yet, showing up at someone's door for a personal conversation.

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