Email’s Brave New World

Communicating with people is hard. People can be messy, complicated, awkward and difficult. Each of us has different perspectives, personalities, goals and internal narratives. Those combine into a complex brew of interactions that shape how we communicate and how we like to be communicated with. Any help in making better communication should be useful. And yet last week I came across a tool that claims to do that, and it completely creeped me out.

Crystal claims to be “the biggest improvement to email since spell check.” A bold claim certainly, but they think they have the goods to back it up. They promise to advise you on the best way to communicate with anyone, based upon their personality.

The mechanics of how the software works are fascinating; type in someone’s name, and it scans the web for all that they have written, doing a linguistic analysis to evaluate their personality. The results offer you an assessment of how to communicate with them, and a guide to how accurate their recommendations are, based upon how much information you can find.

Plug my name in, and Crystal will tell you (with 84% accuracy confidence) that you should keep sarcastic remarks to yourself, stay objective rather than emotional and not exaggerate about any facts (not even a little bit). If you want to send me an email, it advised being brief (three sentences or less, to be specific), back up any claims with data and avoid the use of emotionally expressive language. Ignoring the fact that this makes me seem like an emotionless, nit-picky tyrant, the essence of it isn’t bad. Following the advice will probably get you better results than ignoring it.

Of course, any personality assessment is subject to the Barnum effect. Named in honour of P.T. Barnum, it suggests that anyone will give high ratings to personality assessments that are general enough to apply to most people. So a key question is, do the results vary by person, and do they vary in a meaningful way? I took advantage of being at a conference last week to assess a few people I knew well using Crystal (I won’t say who, to preserve confidentiality and keep people on their toes).

Run a number of people through the tool, and a few things become obvious. One, Crystal tries hard to give meaningful results, and offers advice on a range of topics, from speaking, emailing, working with or selling to a candidate. At the same time, the personality framework behind Crystal is pretty simple. Probably two polarized dimensions (because, truly, there is no concept that cannot be explained by a two-by-two matrix). The same statements come up pretty regularly, but not for everyone. Two similar people, however, will get two very similar profiles.

So why does this creep me out? A little bit of background might help before we get into this. I’m no stranger to personality theory, and understanding the differences that influence how we approach interactions. I’ve worked with a number of personality tools, I’ve read broadly and deeply about related theories, and I have facilitated numerous workshops and meetings with the specific and express intent of helping people to understand each other better.

I have even gone so far as to help people identify the attributes associated with different personalities, so that they  can recognize the likely preferences of someone else. Which is exactly what Crystal offers: type in a name, and get a profile and guidance in return.

The difference is in the mechanics. When I build up an understanding of someone, it is based upon numerous interactions with them. I am not only trying to ascertain preferences, I am shaping my understanding of someone (and they are in turn shaping my perceptions) through actual communication. The back-and-forth of human dynamics leads to a relatively comprehensive and nuanced sense of who they are and how they work.

Crystal, on the other hand, works in the vacuum of the internet. It doesn’t interact with you, and instead reads the bread crumbs and rabbit droppings you have left in your travels online. There is no interaction, no testing and no validation. While there is that disclaimer of percentage confidence, I still managed to get a profile of someone where the accuracy was considered 0%.

Better communications comes from, for want of a better expression, emotional intelligence. From our ability to accurately assess ourselves and others, and our capacity to adapt our approach as a result. There is certainly a risk that emotional intelligence can be a source of manipulation and deception, particularly by malicious narcissists. Although at least the deceivers and manipulators are taking the time to understand their prey.

Crystal presages a new and different take on personality. It is not emotional intelligence, per se, because there is no intelligence required: any user of Crystal is doing nothing more than typing in a name, and being provided with formulaic guides of how to behave in dealing with a target. What Crystal does do, however, is provide a remarkable insight into how, with little effort, technology can shape our interaction. As simple as Crystal currently is, there is a great deal of complexity behind it, and such capabilities will only get more refined in time. It says a lot about how we are likely to be marketed and sold to in the future. A brave new world, but an ominous one also.

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