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Hitachi Research Institute

President Column

Commentary by our President, Keiichi Shimada

#12:Digital and Lines (Meaning Found Between the Lines)

Exchanging information through e-mail is a difficult task. Reading the other person’s feelings during such exchanges is especially difficult. Based on the blunt text of an email, one may get the feeling that the other person is angry and timidly approach them to speak about the matter, and then find out that the person surprisingly was not actually angry. Sometimes one may also be left with the impression something was agreed upon in an email, and then later find out during subsequent discussions that it was not the case. Reading between the lines is something I find difficult.

The difficulty of exchanging information through email becomes even greater when you communicate with people you have never met before. One goes about arbitrarily guessing things about the other person and dealing with them accordingly. Work-related cases involve taking into consideration the other person’s department, their job title, and writing style. In the case of one’s private life, you may take into consideration the nature of the friendship, whether the other person is part of the same age group as others you know, and so on. In any case, reading between the lines is not easy when you do not know exactly who the other person is.

If the person you are dealing with is someone you have met sometime before, email exchanges will take place with replays of past dealings stored in your brain. But if you have not seen the person in a long time, the information may not be up to date, leading to mistakes during the exchange. When you have been emailing someone and then are meeting to speak face-to-face, you may find out that you had actually said something wrong and subsequently opened up a can of worms during your emailing exchange.

Thinking about things this way, we may understand that people read between the lines and deal with each other based on all kinds of information. Silent Message is a paper by American psychologist Albert Mehrabian in 1971, breaks down information exchanged between two people into three elements: (1) verbal, meaning one’s stated words, (2) vocal, meaning one’s tone of voice, and (3) facial expressions. Mehrabian analyzed which of those elements people are most impacted in conversation.

He quantified the individual impact of these three elements by repeatedly experimenting, for instance, with giving words (i.e. “I hate (like) you”) accompanied by inconsistent voice tones of high (low) and facial expressions of joy (anger). The results of the experiment are as follows: (1) words comprised 7%, (2) voices comprised 38%, and (3) facial expressions comprised 55% of the total basis. What this means is that when it comes to conversations taking place amid a disquieting atmosphere where the attitudes expressed differ with what is being spoken, people frantically search for information found in the periphery of the language itself by reading between the lines.

In the days before text messages and email, the primary means of remote conversation consisted of phone calls, faxes and letters. While there would be an unnecessary tension in the air when making phone calls and it took time and effort to go through the trouble of writing and sending faxes and letters, one could convey their feelings with the changing of one’s tone of voice or how the letters of words themselves appeared on the page. Email, however, may miss all this peripheral information, and all that is communicated to the other person are the words which just convey information about the matter at hand.

These days, it is easy to get a discussion off the ground using computers and smart phones by making use of text messages or emails when it comes to things which can be difficult to say in person. If you really want to talk about your feelings and worries, or if you want to make sure you do not make mistakes during your conversations, it might be a good idea to talk face to face. Emoji has become a word that is now understood around the world. One might say that the emoji constitutes a means by which we can recover the information lost as a result of email culture. Without a doubt, this means that the desire to express emotions on top of text-based information is universal.

Amid the pandemic, we saw remote work becoming a common practice, particularly among white-collar workers. Online video conferencing platforms are convenient and easy to use. But over the past two and a half years, some people have left the company and some have joined anew. Sometimes, even when you have seen someone’s face in a conference call, it may be difficult to match up the face with the name when you actually see them in the office.

There is a common saying in Japanese which loosely translates to “A picture is worth a thousand words” or “Seeing is better than hearing.” My understanding of what “thousand words “ or “hearing” constitutes in this context, is the process of guessing what has actually happened by gathering information from various people and supplementing that with peripheral information. That includes confirming the truth of something which has been heard. On the other hand, “a picture” or “seeing” bit is the actual ascertaining of the reality itself.

I wonder to what extent digital technologies will be able to reduce the volume dealt with in terms of the “thousand words” and “hearing” process and get us closer to the reality itself. I wonder if it would be possible for people isolated from one another to come to mutual understanding that is close to what the reality itself is through the communication of feelings and peripheral information. We have only just ventured into the world of collaboration which transcends time and space.