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Multicommunicating is the practice of engaging in more than one conversation at a time. It is defined as, "engaging in two or more overlapping, synchronous conversations".[1] The term multicommunicating was coined by Turner, Reinsch and Tinsley,[2] who propose that simultaneous conversations can be conducted using an ever increasing array of media, including face-to-face, phone and email tools for communication. Multicommunicating has evolved with the rapid development of information and communication technology (ICT) and is a prevalent form of behavior in new and emerging digital media applications such as Slack and Skype.

The practice has become more and more prevalent in recent years and it has received attention from academic fields. Till now, the majority of academic research focuses on its professional implications and outlines a number of key factors shaping the act of multicommunicating. For instance, the flexibility of communication tempo, the compartmentalization of conversations, and the topics and intensity of interactions are all contributing factors toward a person's choice of engaging in multicommunicating as well as his or her ultimate success with the practice.

The reason why multicommunicating is possible from a physiological and cognitive perspective is because humans, or presence allocators, are typically able to think faster than they are able to talk or type.[2] Nonetheless, most neuroscience studies imply that we are not truly cognitively capable of multitasking; we are just able to switch between tasks. This means that those of us who are most skilled at apparent multitasking, or multicommunicating, are essentially very quick at juggling our attention between messages.[3]

Notably, many people engage in multiple conversations as a direct response to the requests of others. Employees frequently believe that multicommunicating increases their productivity and work efficiency, however in-depth interviews about the practice of multicommunicating have often revealed some mixed results. Research has also shown that the most commonly used combinations for multicommunicating are the telephone and email, followed by the telephone and text-based messaging (text message, instant message, etc.).[4]


Multicommunicating primarily builds off Hall's work on polychronicity, Goffman's theory of the presentation of self, and Daft and Lengel's notion of media richness. The practice also bears relevance to media ecology theory as well as channel expansion theory.

Hall's polychronicity[edit]

Multicommunicating is closely related to Hall's 1959 work on polychronicity; in fact, multicommunicating was initially called 'polychronic communication' in one of Turner and Reinsch' first scholarly presentations of the concept to the wider academic community.[5] In his 1959 book The Silent Language, Hall coined the term polychronicity and in subsequent works developed the argument that polychronicity is a measure of a culture's preference toward engaging in several activities at a time. An important conceptual transition then occurred in the late 1990s, when Bluedron[6] became one of the first scholars to adapt the term polychronicity from the cultural context and to apply it to the workplace.

Goffman's presentation of self[edit]

Goffman's theory of the presentation of self, which suggests that people engage in a world of multistage dramas, also plays an informing role in the construction of multicommunicating. The notion that we tailor our behavior to suit our environmental contexts and situations is indeed, true in conversations, too. Nonetheless, where multicommunicating differentiates itself from Goffman's theory of the presentation of self is that a 'presence allocator' picks up their appropriate behavior cues from the interaction and the medium itself as opposed to the 'actor', who picks up his or her cues for appropriate behavior from their physical environment. Goffman's theory set the stage for further studies for which computer-mediated contexts (CMC) shape online self-presentation.[7]

Daft and Lengel's media richness theory[edit]

Daft and Lengel's research on media richness theory or, how employees choose which technologies to use in the workplace, is another important concept for multicommunicating. Similar to McLuhan's notion of 'the medium is the message', Daft and Lengel argue that different media have varying qualities that make them more or less suited for certain interactions.

In a study about the relationship between managerial communication and media selection, Daft and Lengel encourage communication media that emphasizes face-to-face interaction.[8] For example, a relatively complex interaction, such as an important conversation with a new business partner, will likely be carried out with as rich a medium as possible. This rich medium would be a communication technology, like Skype or even a face-to-face conversation, which would allow for maximum information and submersion in the interaction. Conversely, a more casual and routine conversation, such as the making of lunch plans with a co-worker, could easily be carried out over a less contextually rich medium like an office chat or a text message.

Multicommunicating takes the medium selection concept from media richness theory and suggests that some of the same characteristics that contribute to making medium choices may also contribute to the reasons a person might multicommunicate. For example, if a conversation is not very complicated or equivocal, a person might be more likely to engage in multiple conversations. A conversation that is more complicated might make it hard for multicommunicating to take place.[9]

Media ecology theory[edit]

Organizational norms shape the frequency and usage of multicommunication within an organization. In this sense, the practice of multicommunicating is a type of multiple media practices, also known as multimedia, because people often use more than one media when engaging in multiple conversations.[10] Media Ecology theory centers on the principles that there is a strong connection between media, technology and communication, and how media and communication processes influence human perception, feeling, understanding and value, and usually all three are used when engaged in multiple conversations in a technology enriched workplace.[11]

Channel expansion theory[edit]

Closely connected to media richness theory is also the notion of channel expansion theory,[12] which suggests that as an individual becomes more familiar with a specific technology, his or her perception of its capabilities and richness expands. Thus, somebody who is very comfortable with a certain chat site may perceive it to be richer in contextual nature than somebody who is only familiar with its most basic functionalities. This contributes to our understanding of multicommunicating in the sense that people's experience with various media may make them more skilled at picking up contextually rich conversation signals as well as more prepared for handling certain communication technologies. However, even though channel expansion theory implies there are positive effects associated with the familiarity of a technology, this does not necessarily suggest that as a person's perception of media richness increases, the process of multicommunicating becomes simplified.

Multicommunicating within multitasking[edit]

Multicommunicating is similar in nature to the notion of multitasking. The difference between multicommunicating and multitasking can be confusing since both of the terms talk about people participating in two events at the same time. In essence, multicommunicating is a complex form of multitasking.[13]

Multicommunicating departs from multitasking as it refers specifically to managing multiple conversations, people and media – not just tasks – at the same time. Stephen, Cho and Ballard elucidate this distinction in a 2011 paper which compares dovetailing (sequential communication) with multicommunication (simultaneous interactions).[14] In addition, multicommunicating often occurs unbeknown to one's communication partners.

Multitasking refers to a user engaging in multitasking behavior when s/he performs more than one unrelated task concurrently,[15] which simply emphasizes task independence and performance concurrency. Multicommunicating, however, involves people participating in two simultaneous conversations, which not only requires adequate attention on both tasks, but also coordination between the two. The timing and the pace of communication is also at least partially controlled by others and must mediate between different times of exchanges.[16]

In addition to multicommunicating, multitasking also includes electronic multitasking,[17] invisible whispering,[18] and social multitasking.[19] Electronic multitasking entails consuming one-way media while actively performing another activity, such as watching television while doing homework.[20] Invisible whispering consists of secretively using media to communicate with an individual during a meeting, such as texting a person within the same conference room.[21] Lastly, social multitasking involves tasks that are primarily social-interactive, such as switching between face-to face conversation and texting.[22] While these subcategories have particular defining characteristics, they are largely overlapping with other categories.

Specific characteristics[edit]

Research suggests that there are two characteristics which help to determine a person's choice of communication media when engaging in multicommunicating: compartmentalization and flexibility of tempo.


Specific Characteristics
Compartmentalization and Fexibility of Tempo help to determine the success of an episode of multicommunicating.

Compartmentalization refers to the ability and ease of cross-conversations. For instance, an online chat allows one to move relatively freely from one conversation to another. In this case, the ability to hide conversations from the multiple communication partners is an important factor of compartmentalization, too. Certain

Flexibility of tempo[edit]

Flexibility of tempo refers to the amount of time a person has to respond to a certain message. Face-to-face communication often allows for less flexibility of tempo than does a text message.

Most typically, users choose to combine media technologies such as the telephone (described as non-flexible in tempo and partially compartmentalized) with those such as electronic text (described as high in both flexibility and compartmentalization capabilities). Of course, sometimes presence allocators do not have a choice about one or more of the media they engage with. However, specific combinations of communication media may contribute strongly toward the success or, lack thereof, one has with multicommunicating.

Outcome factors[edit]

Several factors, including intensity, topic of conversation, equivocality, and the presence allocator themselves may help to determine the outcomes of an episode of multicommunicating.

Intensity of communication[edit]

Intensity of communication is one of the key factors in multicommunicating because it helps to predict the amount of attention and importance a specific conversation holds. Typically, conversation intensity increases with more, simultaneous conversations, a faster pace of conversion, a broader range of topics, and a wider mix of social roles. Overly high intensity has sometimes been reported as a factor for unsuccessful multicommunicating.

Topic of conversation[edit]

The topics or themes of episodes of multicommunicating are another key factor determining overall success. Put simply, the more alike the themes of the simultaneous conversations, the more congruent an experience and easier a time the presence allocator has in information processing and conversation-switching. Similarly, the more divergent the topics or themes of conversation, the bigger the cognitive strain on the presence allocator and the higher the chance for confusion or conversation mix-ups.


The notion of equivocality is closely related to topic or theme of communication and is another key factor, which may help to determine the success of multicommunicating. Equivocality refers to the possibility for misinterpretation and studies suggest that the higher the potential for equivocality in a conversation, the more likely an individual is to pick a medium of communication that is rich in contextual cues, or that has high media-richness. The possibility for equivocality extends to episodes of multicommunicating, too, and could potentially be compounded if one has to switch their attention between media – or does not engage in rich-media conversations when necessary.

Presence allocator[edit]

There are limits to our working memory that in turn restrict our cognitive information processing capabilities. Performance deteriorates when these limits are exceeded. Because of these limits, performing two tasks at the same time or rapidly switching between two tasks results in decreased task performance in terms of accuracy and response time. These problems can be partially alleviated (but not eliminated) by practice and physical compatibility of the tasks being performed, but they increase with task complexity.[23]

Overall, research advocates that presence allocators have the most successful experiences with multicommunicating episodes when engaged in multiple conversations with contextually appropriate media around similar topics. Likewise, the frequent reports of unsuccessful multicommunicating episodes include a sense of high intensity, equivocality and theme confusion. In those cases, information overload can occur to the point where a conversation slows down, becomes confounded or altogether stops.


The first studies of multicommunicating began when instant messaging first became common practice.[24] While the study of multicommunicating is still in its emergent stages, it appears to be increasingly relevant to a fast-paced, multitasking society. Some implications of multicommunicating and suggestions for further studies include:


Most people indicate that they multicommunicate in order to become more efficient. However, this goal of efficiency has received some mixed results. Despite the notion that getting several things done at once makes us more productive, research has indicated that polychronicity is negatively correlated with deadlines.[25] More specifically, when it comes to communication and multiple conversations many people reveal a breaking point, at which they can no longer juggle synchronous messages. Significant numbers of research subjects also indicate that they prefer to stay away from multicommunicating altogether when it comes to important conversations which require strong attention.

Several scholars also hypothesized that perceived communication workload can influence people engaging in multicommunicating. Since perceived heavy workload gives people a sense of loss of time, which may result to people compensating for the effect of being overloaded by multicommunicating. However, as revealed by related research results, perceived communication overload did not predict meeting multitasking behaviors.[26]

Perceived incivility[edit]

By employing the social exchange theory, which views social behavior as "an exchange of goods, material goods but also non-material ones, such as the symbols of approval or prestige" where "persons that give much to others try to get much from them, and persons that get much from others are under pressure to give much to them",[27] Carmeno and Webster examine the relational outcomes of multicommunicating from the following aspects: Partners-VS Focal-Initiated Conversation, Conversation Leveraging, Multicommunicating Performance, Focal Individual Accessibility, Partner's Polychronic Communication Orientation, Awareness and Media Fit. In their research, they suggest that Multicommunicating has the potential to build up or damage our workplace relationships. And the incivility perceived in multicommunicating may lead to mistrust in working places.[28]

Practical uses[edit]

Personal interaction[edit]

Staying “connected has become a societal norm and a personal habit in our society, especially with the development of new information communication technologies (ICTs). Bayer, Campbell & Ling[29] explain how individuals internalize and activate social connectedness during daily life. The model outlined typed of connection cues, factors, that moderate sensitivity to connection norms, and activation paths for connection habits. But what does it really mean to stay “connected”? Does it mean that our physical presence also determines our social presence? Attentional Social Presence Theory developed by Turner & Foss[30] suggests that there are four types of presences when we engage in multiple conversations: budgeted, entitled, competitive and invitational.

  • Budgeted presence happens when one engages in multiple conversations at once, for instance, talking to one's friend while also sending an email.
  • Entitled presence happens when one can take one's audience’s technology away or someone takes one's technology away, for instance, one's in class and the professor asks to put one's phones away.
  • Competitive presence happens when one try to persuade other people or group of people to pay attention to one, and one seem to have to compete with their communication technology, for instance, when one's trying to share a personal story with one's friend, but they're on their phone and are not paying attention to one.
  • Invitational presence happens when one decide to focus on one's audience and one is making a concrete effort to be in the moment (only one conversation), one is focused only on that interaction, for instance, one is having a one-on-one conversation with one's friend, there is no technology involved and there are no distractions.

Each presence involves the control of our audience and technology, the choices we make, and how we interact.

Is there a way to measure our social presence? In her paper “Toward a more robust theory and measure of social presence[31]” Biocca, Harms & Burgoon contribute to the understanding of social behavior in mediated environments, which allows researchers to predict and measure differences among interfaces and guide the design of new social environments and interfaces

Organizational norms and perceptions[edit]

Multicommunicating is especially present in team collaborations. In order to be more effective in their workplace, teams would use different platforms for their communication practices. There are a number of communication platforms such as Slack that include multiple Social Media Channels (social networking platforms and instant messaging). The media capabilities of these platforms, including integrations for diverse information and communication technologies, enable affordances for both highly adaptable and centralized team communication practices. A recent research shows that team communication platforms (also known as TCPs) enable affordances for multicommunication and attention allocation including flexible scaling of media modality and synchronicity.[32]

Another important factor to consider with multicommunicating is the organizational context and the perception of others.[28]

In organizational settings, research suggests that individual's decisions to use informational communication technology are influenced by what they observe other members do in the organization, which is positive related to their multicommunicating behaviors.[33] The perception of what others think about multicommunicating is also another significant predictor on this behaviors. Often, people hide the fact that they are multicommunicating from their conversational partners because they report an underlying perception of rudeness or partiality of conversational investment associated with multicommunicating. However, if people perceive that multicommunicating is acceptable in the organizations, they will not feel embarrassed and will engage in this kind of behaviors more often.

Depending on the organizational culture, multicommunicating can become particularly crucial and bear negative effects in a professional or office setting. Conversely, research suggests that employees who follow organizational communication norms receive higher performance ratings than those who don't. Therefore, if multicommunicating were considered an organizational 'norm', its practice could also bring positive feedback.[28]

While multicommunicating can be a controversial topic in research and practice, it is an increasingly common organizational realty. Further research into cognitive abilities, organizational settings and expanding virtual work opportunities, as well as technology will likely carry significant findings for our personal and professional lives.


Multicommunication can change the ways in which teams work and interact within the organization. An important factor to consider with multicommunicating is the organizational context and the perception of others. In their research Stephens and Davis (2009) talk about the social influences on electronic multitasking in organizational meetings.[34] ICTs have infiltrated meetings and allowed a new range of communicative behaviors to emerge. The observation of organizational norms and the perception of others’ thoughts concerning the use of ICTs for multitasking during a meeting explain a considerable amount of variance in how individuals use ICTs to communicate electronically in meetings.[34]

Relating to this point, Belanger and Watson (2006) made a study exploring how virtual team members structure their use of multiple media to attain strategic goals.[35] In today’s work environment, individuals working in teams must learn to manage their time for communication and coordination, and to add to this complexity teams can range from completely virtual environments to face-to-face and all the technologies that are involved. Cardon and Dai (2014) did a study that examines the nature of mobile phone use in meetings among Chinese professionals.[36] Using mobile phones in meetings is a form of multicommunicaion, but the etiquette associated with mobile phone use differ across cultures. Multicommunicating via mobile phones in meetings is mostly client-based and relationship-based, and it changes among cultures and across generations.


Criticisms of multicommunication theory at large are not prevalent considering the obvious reason that multicommunicating is a relatively newly defined and studied behavior. However, due to the fact that multicommunicating has been largely studied for its professional implications, recent critical research suggests that multicommunicating behavior may have adverse effects on individual productivity, [37] workplace relationships,[38] and stress management.[39]

Cameron draws from several disciplines, including management and cognitive and social psychology, to provide several misconceptions about multicommunication. After conducting empirical research, she claims that multicommunicating, contrary to popular belief, may render an individual in fact less accessible, less productive, and potentially more rude in certain professional contexts. She points out that multicommunicating behavior, especially among those with a weak ability to focus, has often increased errors, reduced contribution between ongoing conversations, and increased confusion in the workplace.[40] In doing so, many people multicommunicate as an uncontrolled habit rather than a strategic form of communication, offering more negative implications than positive. Cameron, however, does not advocate against multicommunication, but rather for people to better understand their multicommunicating behaviors and to practice multicommunicating more intentionally.

Multicommunicating's practical implications also have drawn criticism in gender studies. Soukup's analysis of computer-mediated communication through a critical ethnography of gendered chatrooms illustrates the normative forms of behavior among genders online. In distinct gendered chatrooms, masculine participants mostly demonstrated more aggressive and argumentative, while feminine participants mostly sought relationships and intimacy.[41] These earlier findings have significant implications on multicommunicating behavior. Paskewitz and Beck later conducted research about texting during workplace meetings and determined that women perceive individuals who practice multicommunicating more negatively than men. At the same time, the gender of the multicommunicator did not play a role in these perceptions.[42]

See also[edit]


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  34. ^ a b Stephens, Keri K.; Davis, Jennifer (2009-06-08). "The Social Influences on Electronic Multitasking in Organizational Meetings". Management Communication Quarterly. 23 (1): 63–83. doi:10.1177/0893318909335417. ISSN 0893-3189.
  35. ^ Bélanger, France; Watson-Manheim, Mary Beth (July 2006). "Virtual Teams and Multiple Media: Structuring Media Use to Attain Strategic Goals". Group Decision and Negotiation. 15 (4): 299–321. doi:10.1007/s10726-006-9044-8. ISSN 0926-2644. S2CID 60912280.
  36. ^ W., Cardon, Peter; Ying, Dai (2014). "Mobile Phone Use in Meetings among Chinese Professionals: Perspectives on Multicommunication and Civility". Global Advances in Business Communication. 3 (1). ISSN 2164-1692.
  37. ^ Cameron, A-F; Webster, J (2013). "Multicommunicating: juggling multiple conversations in the workplace". Information Systems Research. 24 (2): 352–371. doi:10.1287/isre.1120.0446.
  38. ^ Cameron, A-F; Webster, J (2011). "Relational outcomes of multicommunicating: integrating incivility and social exchange perspectives". Organization Science. 22 (3): 754–771. doi:10.1287/orsc.1100.0540.
  39. ^ Marulanda-Carter, L; Jackson, TW (2012). "Effects of e-mail addiction and interruptions on employees". Journal of Systems and Information Technology. 14 (1): 82–94. doi:10.1108/13287261211221146.
  40. ^ Ann-Frances, Cameron; et al. (2016). "Four Common Multicommunicating Misconceptions". European Journal of Information Systems. 25 (5): 465–471. doi:10.1057/ejis.2016.8. S2CID 5107015.
  41. ^ Soukup, C. (2000). Building a Theory of Multi-Media CMC: An Analysis, Critique and Integration of Computer-Mediated Communication Theory and Research. New Media & Society, 2(4), 407–425.
  42. ^ Paskewitz, Emily A; Beck, Stephenson J (2019). "Exploring Perceptions of Multicommunicator Texting During Meetings". Computers in Human Behavior. 101: 238–247. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2019.07.032.

Further reading[edit]

  • Cameron, A. (2007). Juggling multiple conversations with communication technology: towards a theory of multi-communicating impacts in the workplace. Doctoral Dissertation, Retrieved Online. March 17, 2012.
  • Gibson, C.B.; Gibbs, J.L.; Stanko, T.L.; Tesluk, P.; Cohen, S.G. (2011). "Including the "I" in Virtuality and Modern Job Design: Extending the Job Characteristics Model to Include the Moderating Effect of Individual Experiences of Electronic Dependence and Copresence". Organization Science. 22 (6): 1481–1499. doi:10.1287/orsc.1100.0586.
  • O'Leary, M.B.; Mortensen, M; Woolley, A. (2011). "Multiple Team Membership: A Theoretical Model of Productivity and Learning Effects for Individuals and Teams". Academy of Management Review. 36 (3): 461–78. doi:10.5465/amr.2011.61031807.
  • Stephens, K (2007). "The Successive Use of Information and Communication Technologies at Work". Communication Theory. 17 (4): 486–507. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2007.00308.x.
  • Stephens, K. K.; Cho, J. K.; Ballard, D. I. (2012). "Simultaneity, Sequentiality, and Speed: Organizational Messages About Multiple-Task Completion". Human Communication Research. 38: 23–47. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2958.2011.01420.x.
  • Woerner, S., Orlikowski W. & Yates J. (2005) Scaffolding Conversations: Engaging Multiple Media in Organizational Communication. Paper presented at 21st EGOS Colloquium, Berlin.