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Making Appointments


Communication between living organisms has taken a long time to develop. I don't know what the exact sequence was, but I'm guessing it was something like this:

That took us up to about a hundred years ago, at which point we added

Procedurally, communication by telegraph was similar to communication by writing, because in both cases, the message was in the form of words, and the sender of the message would not have an opportunity to communicate with the reader of the message between the time the message was sent and when it was read.

Likewise, communication by telephone was similar to verbal communication in person (though there were some differences, especially at first, when the reliability of the telephone was lower).

Television and radio were similar to theatre and oratory (there was less opportunity for feedback, but feedback made theatre and oratory more like conversation, so we could say that the conventions of television and radio communication were subsets of the conventions for their in-person counterparts).

During the last ten or twenty years, two new forms of communication have become popular:

Electronic chat is like a telephone conversation, except with text: it is real-time, and it allows for immediate feedback. The other two, though, are different enough from their predecessors that they require some new conventions which are currently in the process of being formed.

The Problem

Let's say you want to meet with somebody. You send them an email:

Hi, I'd like to get together. Let's meet at the coffeeshop next to the library, tomorrow at noon.
If you subsequently receive an email that says:
Cool; see you there!
then you meet at the coffeeshop, and you think nothing more of it.

But what if you don't get an email back? You have a problem. Maybe she didn't receive your email. Maybe she received it but didn't plan to go and forgot to answer. Maybe she answered, but something happened to her response (like, she accidentally sent it to the wrong address; or left it on your answering machine, which you didn't check; or ...). Should you go to the coffeeshop and risk getting stood up? Should you not go, and risk standing her up?

On the telephone, this problem didn't exist; the same thing would've gone like this:

Hey, let's get together tomorrow; I'll meet you at the coffeeshop by the library, at noon.
Cool; see you then.
Okay, bye.

Bye.
(click)

The reason there's no problem on the phone is that there's feedback, and confirmation of the feedback. We're so used to this that it goes by without notice. But let's say you hear this:

Hey, let's get together tomorrow; I'll meet you at the coffeeshop by the library, at noon.
Cool; see you then.
Okay, bye.

(long silence)
(click)

You'd wonder whether she heard you say Okay, bye. If she didn't, she wouldn't have known whether you heard her say Cool; see you then. So you'd probably call her back and say Hey, we got cut off; just wanted to make sure you knew we're on for tomorrow.

There's a lot of stuff going on, so let's look at the first conversation again, and see what each person knows at each step along the way:

What you know What you say What she says What she knows
  Hey, let's get together tomorrow; I'll meet you at the coffeeshop by the library, at noon.   You want to meet with her.
She has agreed to meet.   Cool; see you then.  
  Okay, bye.   You heard her, and you're sure that she's agreed.
    Bye. You heard her, and you're sure that she's agreed.
Because you didn't hear anything unusual before hanging up, you are pretty sure she heard your final bye and knows that you heard her agree to meet. (click)   Because she didn't hear anything unusual, she's pretty sure that you know that she heard your final bye and that you know she knows.

Here's what that same degree of confirmation might look like in email:

What you know What you send What you receive What she receives What she sends What she knows
Hey, let's get together tomorrow; I'll meet you at the coffeeshop by the library, at noon.
Hey, let's get together tomorrow; I'll meet you at the coffeeshop by the library, at noon. You want to meet with her.
Cool; see you then.
She has agreed to meet. Cool; see you then.
Cool; see you then.

During the last couple of decades Meeting scheduling 1 Stephen: I propose we meet _________ (range of time/place) 2 Lloyd: I accept your proposal and refine it to __________ (specifics) 3 Stephen: I accept your refinement and am now planning to be there then 4 Lloyd: I acknowledge your acceptance 5 Stephen: I acknowledge your acknowledgement At this point, you know I'm planning to come (you've received 3), and I know you're expecting me (I've received 4). There's still some uncertainty (about whether you've received 5), but it's been moved from uncertainly about the meeting to uncertainty about our receipt of each other's acknowledgements (which it's probably not worth exchanging emails to reduce the uncertainty any further). This all seems formal and over-engineered, but in fact, it's something we've been unconsciously trained to do in other situations. It's kind of funny to see how it works on the phone: 1 Stephen: Hi, Lloyd; Stephen here; we need to get together to talk; how about sometime this weekend? 2 Lloyd: Hi, Stephen, I agree; how about noon to two on Saturday? 3 Stephen: Perfect, I'll be there. 4 Lloyd: Okay, see you then. Bye! 5 Stephen: Bye! ***click***