Lying, meeting and traveling

Mark Gibbs ponders moral disengagement in e-mail, the value of face-to-face meetings, wonders why you don't use video conferencing more, and asks you to defend business travel.

First of all, do you use a NetGear firewall? I recently purchased an eight-port Gigabit ProSafe VPN Firewall (model FVS318G) and I've had a problem which I'll discuss in next week's Gearhead. If you've had issues with any of the devices in this line, please drop me a note at gearhead@gibbs.com and tell me what you've experienced.

So here's what's on my mind this week: It seems e-mail corrupts us and turns most of us into liars. This is the conclusion of a recent study titled "The finer points of lying online: E-mail versus pen and paper".

What was being explored is something called "moral disengagement theory", which has been extended into the realm of the online world (in particular see this paper).

This study compared e-mail to pen and paper communication, the authors suggesting that both are equal in terms of media richness because both are text only.

What the authors found was that "people are more willing to lie when communicating via e-mail than via pen and paper and they feel more justified in doing so". Here's what's particularly interesting: The subjects lied whether they knew "that their lie either would or would not be discovered by their counterparts."

See what I mean about corrupting us?

So, e-mail fosters lying. But you knew that, didn't you? Come on, how often have you told someone that you didn't get their e-mail or claimed that you sent an e-mail when you really hadn't?

It would seem face-to-face interactions would be a better bet, wouldn't it? A number of people I've spoken to about this have argued that "pressing palms" is essential to doing business, but I'm not sure how true this is. The assumption is that being physically present is crucial but the evidence points to three aspects of communication being far more important: What you say, how you say it, and the facial expressions you use.

Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology, UCLA, studied this topic and defined the 7%-38%-55% rule, which ranks the importance of "the three Vs", verbal, vocal and visual, in determining whether one person likes another when they meet. Thus, words account for just 7%, tone of voice 38%, and body language a whopping 55%. Note that doesn't mean that what you say is the least important in communication. What it means is that, whether you are liked and, by extension, trusted and believed, is more dependent on the other factors.

So, being heard and seen are what matters in communication, which begs the question, why do we keep jumping on planes to go to see customers and visit other groups within our companies when we could just use video conferencing?

Just think about it: The costs of going anywhere are significant, the wasted time horrendous, the wear and tear on staff awful, and the productivity usually very low. Add to that the increased carbon footprint and pollution contribution of your organization due to the travel and, in the age of H1N1, the fact that your staff are increasing the potential for a global pandemic, and video conferencing starts to look not only sensible but also profoundly ethical (and you'll save a few bucks in the process).

So, riddle me this: Considering all of these factors, why are you travelling so much? How do you defend the financial, human, business and social downsides of your organization's travel? And, most importantly, what are you going to do about it?

Gibbs tries not to travel from Ventura, Calif.. Send your (truthful) comments to backspin@gibbs.com.

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