When Less is Not More: The Downsides of Short Communication

Reading Time: 
4 min

Written by: Tobias Günther

“Could you complete this task by Thursday?” I typed in our team chat. I had asked a simple question. And I received a simple answer: a thumbs-up emoji.

On the surface, this seems like a very efficient little conversation: I asked a question and received a one-symbol answer. Quick. Economical. To the point. A perfect example of the power of brevity.

But also a perfect example for something else: that brevity comes with a price. Because, for the love of God, I just couldn’t figure out what my colleague really meant with their response.

This innocent emoji could have meant all sorts of things:

  • 👍 == “Yes, sure. No problem! I wanted to tackle this for a long time anyways.”
  • 👍 == “Yes, I can. But it’s awfully short notice…“
  • 👍 == “Yes, well… you’re my boss. What choice do I have?”

Don’t get me wrong: in some situations and with some conversation partners, there’s nothing wrong with communicating as briefly as this. We shouldn’t write the next great American novel when it’s enough to use a single sentence (or, in extreme cases, a single emoji).

But more often than not, we overdo it with brevity. I would much rather opt for an email or a chat message that’s slightly too long than too short. Because when it’s too short, problems are just around the corner…

I might fail to provide my colleagues with crucial details they need in order to do a great job. I might invite misunderstandings or even conflicts. I might fail to give an accurate, complete picture of the situation.

The more we cut from our messages, the more we run the risk of cutting something important. Of omitting crucial information. When this happens, we’ve lost some of the most important aspects of any communication: clarity and comprehensibility.

Here are three ideas to avoid this trap.

Be Wary of One-Word, One-Symbol Answers

Certain media beguile us into extreme brevity. Especially in chat and text messages, it’s both easy and widely accepted to be extremely brief. The final stage of this tendency is the one-word / one-symbol answer. But “OK”, “Yep,” or the thumbs-up emoji often don’t provide enough context to make them complete pieces of communication. They leave too many questions open.

Often, it would only take a couple more words to paint a more complete picture. One where the receiver doesn’t have to fill in the blanks — because the sender didn’t leave any in the first place.

Sometimes, of course, a one-word / one-symbol answer is just fine. Use your powers of judgment. But err on the side of writing “too much” rather than “too little.”

Consider the Context

In some situations, communicating briefly is safer than in others. As a simple example, think of a friend you’ve known for many years. When they ask you if you’re free on Friday to go to your favorite restaurant, a thumbs-up emoji is a safe response.

But when the parameters change, the demands on our communication also change:

  • The more people are involved…
  • The less familiar they are with the topic…
  • The more critical the topic is…
  • The less strong and resilient the relationship is…

…the more comprehensively we need to communicate.

Learn to Appreciate the "Longer" Communication

Finally, I’d like to question our striving for brevity altogether. Sure, we all want to save time: by producing less communication and by having to consume less communication. But economy is not the highest good when it comes to communication. Clarity and comprehensibility are.

If we look at it from this perspective, a slightly longer piece of communication is a gift. It strives to answer as many questions as possible. To avoid misunderstandings and unnecessary back and forth. It enables the receiver to take action after consuming it and reduces the risk of mistakes.

All of this is much more valuable than saving a minute or two while writing, recording, or reading.

To stay true to the central argument of this essay, let me add one more thought, for the sake of comprehensibility: I’m not against brevity. I’m against the collateral damage it often causes when we’re not careful.

It is an incredibly difficult task to transfer the thoughts and ideas we have in our heads into the heads of other people. Let’s not make it even more difficult by making it overly brief.

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