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Face Beats Phone, Beats IM, Beats Email

Precedence is an important property to understand. If you are sitting in a pub with friends and someone sends an SMS text message to your mobile phone, then the conversation you are having with your friends should take precedence over the text message…

Precedence is an important property to understand. If you are sitting in a pub with friends and someone sends an SMS text message to your mobile phone, then the conversation you are having with your friends should take precedence over the text message…

This does not seem to be happening. I leave my mobile at home when I go to the pub to socialise. Two reasons. I don’t want personal e-interruptions and, moreover, I don’t want to be called back home for trivial non-emergencies while I am enjoying a pint…or two with friends. If it’s a real emergency, they can call the pub’s phone!

Likewise, if you are sending an email or text chatting casually on your favourite IM program (Skype, for instance) and a work colleague steps into your office, do not hold up your hand to finish typing the football scores or your witty remark about Britney’s latest hairstyle, or lack thereof. Talk to the face, the hands should not be fiddling and the thumbs shall not be twiddling.

It is all about precedence, as the title of this article hopefully makes obvious. Modern communication is like a game of rock-scissors-paper, except the loop is not closed. Face to face beats phone, in turn, phone beats, instant messaging, which beats email and SMS. But, because the loop is not closed, neither email nor SMS beats face!

It was actually the creator of this site, Wayne Smallman, who inspired this post and it languished for a short while in my editing queue. He took the precedence principle to heart during an IM chat. One of his clients phoned, while Wayne and I were e-chatting about some aspect of blogging software. Of course, phone beats IM, so he went quickly offline and only came back on to say bye, once he’d finished the conversation. It’s only polite, after all.

This guest blog post is I feel turning into one of those life-hack type posts, rather than focusing on any single technology, it’s all about improving your internal software and content management system. The whole idea of our becoming purely e-communicators and essentially side-stepping face to face contact conflicts harshly in some sense with what it actually means to be human. Admittedly, we all have more and more virtual friends, especially as even non-techy acquaintances are hitting Facebook. The whole Second Life experience, of course, takes this evolution to its logical conclusion.

Of course, that all said, there are times when you might be Twittering or Powncing and fancy a chat with a random stranger who happens to be on your wavelength, it’s an important part of growing in the electronic age and it allows you to meet, virtually, almost anyone from Alaska to Zambia. It’s possible even that your new virtual friends could become true IM friends, emails might even be shared, perhaps at a push, phone numbers. Ultimately, there might even be a chance to meet up, down the pub for one, or two, swift pints. But, please, do remember to practice safe Skype.

An image of David Bradley, science writer and 'bloggerDavid Bradley is a freelance science writer and journalist based in Cambridge, England. He has contributed to a wide range of publications including American Scientist, Popular Science, New Scientist, as well as running his own blogging tips and tricks ‘blog at

9 replies on “Face Beats Phone, Beats IM, Beats Email”

Oh I quite agree. It has always annoyed me when people pay more attention to their text messages than to me when I made the effort to meet them in person.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s always the medium that determines precedence. It’s often the relationship that matters e.g. an IM from my boss would get my attention over a phone call from a friend. Is that bad? 😉

I think Webgeekgirl is right about context, though often it would correspond to what David has described. In addition to the matter of being courteous to those around you, I think it is important to remember these distinctions to keep some sanity in our lives. Just because we can be reached by text, phone, etc. at any time of day in almost any place doesn’t mean we should be. I know I for one wouldn’t want the pressure of thinking I might have to go off and work in the middle of the night just because I was easy to find!

I was at the pub the other day and one person was messaging and someone else was on the phone, so I grabbed a magazine off the bar and read while waiting for them to finish. Of course when they were done they had to discuss what the messages and calls were about, none of which was relevant to relaxation.

Perhaps the best reason to have a mobile at the pub is to call someone else to join you for real conversation while the others are typing on their tiny keyboards!

Very interesting article! Here in Colombia, though, there is NO WAY people at the club will hand you the phone because somebody is calling you there… Everybody takes their mobile with them. Now, I will take these tech etiquette recommendations into consideration from now on. All the best!

I do agree with the previous commenters, context is very important. In my current job we have several remote employees, including the boss, and we use IM and IRC as our primary means of communication. Heidi touched on an important downfall to this of course, I’ve had to retrain myself to stop responding to IM and log out of IRC after hours so that I can maintain some balance. My cell phone does come with me everywhere, but I have never felt beholden to it as much as others I suppose. I usually ignore it completely by accident, after all it’s set to vibrate and is buried at the bottom of my bag-of-holding purse…

My husband always ignores me when he is texting on his phone. I’ve already once threatened to throw his phone out the car window. Next time I might just do it. I’ve also sent him text messages while sitting next to him to get his attention.

Hi Kara, that’s obviously an extreme example, and I for one certainly wouldn’t want to comment on how best to deal with that situation.

However, in recent news, British people are sending 1 billion text messages per week, which is an astounding figure, by any standards.

I don’t see a time when it will be any less rude for someone to take a call or send a text when they’re with us. But with this much data flying around, there are certainly more chances for us to be rude while in the company of our friends and loved ones!

This is something that I always try to be very aware of as it’s somewhat of an annoyance with me.

For instance, in a shop, if I’ve gone to the trouble to turn up in person, don’t then make me wait if the phone rings and you choose to answer that instead of talking to me.

Similarly, I find it really irritating if you organise to meet up with someone for coffee or lunch and then instead of talking with you, they spend most of the time talking on the phone / texting. – You soon realise whether these kind of people are worth your time and you their’s.

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