Totem of Chat

(this article was first published in the May 2013 edition of Face Magazine)

Do you remember a time when faxes were high tech communication? If I'm being quite honest, I barely do. Nearly gone are the days of landlines, fax machines and snail mail.  We are now inundated with hundreds of ways to communicate with each other.  There's SMS, Facebook, Gchat, email and facetime just to name a few.  But are they all equal? Which ones should we use when? (When do we use one over another?)

In the pilot episode of HBO's Girls, Marnie Michaels describes what she calls the "totem of chat."  She observes a hierarchy of the various methods of communication starting with "Facebook, followed by Gchat, then texting, then email, then phone." 

Just as some people are more attune to the nuances of offline social order, some are more attune to the unspoken rules governing various methods of communication.  Certain messages will carry entirely different interpretations when expressed through different mediums. But does the "totem of chat" actually exist? Is there a specific place and time for each method of communication? Does the method of delivery have any bearing on how a message will be interpreted?


The phone has long been thought of as the most professional way to conduct business.  However, it may not be the most efficient method of communication and it is invasive.  Using the phone to call someone implies that what you need to talk about is more important than their time.  If a matter isn't urgent, email might be a better choice.  Nevertheless, if a matter is complicated or personal, picking up the phone will certainly save both parties time and the risk of the message being lost in e-translation.

In the last few years, the line between office phones and cell phones have become blurred.  Many mobile office professionals don't even maintain a landline, and instead opt for a strictly cellular method. That said, it's important to be conscious of business hours when contacting your colleagues. Make work related calls during business hours only, and remember just because you have someone's cell phone number doesn't mean you should use it.  Especially not as your first call!


Email is my preferred way to conduct business.  It provides a professional platform to get my point across without having to waste time on unnecessary small talk. Email isn't intrusive like a phone call and allows the recipient to respond at their convenience. But don't neglect to respond - it's expected. 

When using email, it's important to use a subject line. It alerts the recipient to the subject matter of your message so you don't keep your reader in suspense. You will likely get a faster response and it will also help the reader reference your email in the future. 

Text Message:

For being a relative newcomer, texting has become immensely popular over the last 5 years. I love texting, but I typically reserve using it for my friends. In most cases (but not all), I find it an inappropriate method for conducting business. 

Texting provides a quick and easy method for communicating short messages but it definitely has it's limitations. Its casualness diminishes the strength and meaning of the message. More importantly, it (nor any other written communication) shouldn't replace all communication as it cannot convey the subtle nuances that come with a face to face meeting, or even a phone call. 

There are a lot of things to keep in mind about using text as a method of communicating with friends. It should not be used to inform people of sad or upsetting news. Be also aware that not everyone has unlimited texting as part of their cellular plan. Your recipients may actually have to pay for the messages you send. 

One of the most frustrating and offensive types of text messaging is the infamous group text. It's important to realize that often when you respond to a text message that has been sent to more than one person, the whole group (not just the sender) will receive your response.  This can become very irritating for the other recipients of the message.  If you are going to respond, start a separate thread between you and the sender unless everybody needs to see your response. This of it as the bcc: vs cc: of texting. Perhaps just reconsider sending a group text in the first place. 


Entire books could be written on the subtle implications of each social media site. While there are definite differences, overall they rank about equal in the totem of chat. Comments, wall posts, and status updates provide a fun way to keep in touch with family, and a great platform for casual banter between friends.  They are also quite useful as methods for inviting people to casual gatherings through event invitations and message boards.

As for business communication, social media sites should be avoided.  The only exceptions are if you know the recipient well or have no other way to communicate with them.  In the latter example, social media messages should be limited to asking for a phone number or email with which to initiate more appropriate contact. 

While it's important to be mindful of social conventions, it's equally important to realize that as with any rule, there are always exceptions. The key to being an effective communicator is making a concerted effort to reach people how they like to be reached. This applies to everyone and everything from witty banter between close friends to my business clients hoping to broadcast their marketing messages.  If you can make people more comfortable, your message will be better received and lines will be more open and honest. Isn't that the whole point of communication anyway?