Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Communicator's Conundrum

Are we losing the ability to communicate vocally? Read on:

In a world before email and text messaging, there were essentially two kinds of communication: vocal and written. Before anyone tries to get all technical on me, you'll see that any exceptions you can conceive are in essence one of these two, but to be more specific, I'm talking about asynchronous communication versus synchronous communication. Essentially, asynchronous communication refers to any form of communication in which the response is not immediately expected. Writing a letter is asynchronous; you don't go to the post office to send a letter expecting to find one waiting for you in response. On the other hand, synchronous communication implies immediate exchange. If someone calls you on the phone, you can't just answer later when you have the time. I've thought a lot about this distinction since I had to read a study on forms of teaching and the methods of communication they employ.

As a quick note, there are certain traits of each type of communication that are worth mentioning. I'll consider synchronous communication first: If I speak with someone on the phone or face-to-face, I get all the added depth to my communication afforded by the nuances of body-language and intonation. I can be sarcastic, cheerful, somber, or any number of other moods associated with a specific intonation in speech. This comes at the price of commitment: one cannot just take a time out from a conversation to stop and think about the next thing to say or how to say it. The benefits and detriments of asynchronous communication are simply the opposites of those of synchronous communication: One communicating asynchronously has time and freedom to form and reform ideas to perfect them, but nuance is lost. Little more than the words themselves can express the meaning of the writer (emoticons, fonts, and other tricks to imitate body-language and intonation will never be as effective or as clear to understand as the synchronous version). With all of these, the meaning of the communication is lost in part as well. Some things just cannot be expressed if not vocally. It's no wonder Johnathan Swift's most perfect race in Gulliver's Travels was the race that had no written language.

Historically, both forms of communication have been necessary. The limitations of each have necessitated the other. It was impossible to speak across the ocean, and it was equally impossible to conduct a meaningful written conversation that would initiate and conclude on a reasonable time scale. However, things today are different. Communication today has become a little more complicated. In fact, I'm going to make up a new term just to classify some of the new forms of communication: semisynchronous. If I attempt to "chat" with someone on the internet, that person may ask me a question. I am customarily expected to answer synchronously (one doesn't wait for days in a chat room to finish a conversation) but I am afforded many of the benefits and I suffer many of the detriments associated with asynchronous communication. I can write my ideas and rewrite them to perfection and I have time to rethink what I am about to say. However, I must depend on the words to carry the meaning, rather than the way I say them.

What I am calling semisynchronous communication is essentially asynchronous communication with a potentially instant response time. This is made possible with the rise of computers, internet, and cell phones. Of course, the most prominent example is text messaging. The appeal is obvious; you want an instant answer, but you don't want to commit to a real conversation. I don't believe people are usually consciously weighing their options in that decision, but it is so much easier to carefully form a question and think it through rather than to have to present it on the spot. To me it is apparent that, while vocal communication is not being entirely invalidated (the digital revolution has improved the scope of speech as it has that of writing), it may be approaching obsolescence in some spheres. One of the main detriments of written communication having been removed, one can have conversation in a reasonable time scale without ever uttering a word.

I am writing on this because I have noticed a major detail in my own communications that is bothersome. There seems to be a constant need to evaluate what the best medium is for any given situation. Should I make a phone call? Should I send a text message? Should I send an email? Should I find the intended hearer and have a face-to-face conversation? This is a dilemma because the choice of medium establishes a clear statement beyond what is being said. There is a continuum of commitment on which these media fall: Text messaging implies almost no commitment, since it is semisynchronous, easy to prepare and send, and can be done at any time from anywhere. Emails at least add the requirement that a person be at a computer with internet access, but are otherwise similar to text messaging. A phone call seems to imply some kind of urgency now. In the absence of some kind of intimacy between those communicating, a phone call is apparently reserved for those situations in which a text message or email just can't return the information quickly enough. A face-to-face communication is a similar statement of commitment. Culturally, we make a statement simply by choosing to dial a number rather that text to it. As a result, people text more and talk less.

If people depend more on written communications, what happens to the nuance and subtlety, the power of intonation and volume, body language, and so many other vital elements of vocal communication? Already, we have seen some replacements for these in written communication: the emoticon, the ellipsis, the use of uppercase letters, all of these can stand in for nonverbal vocal cues. However, they do not cover the infinite possibilities of a true vocal conversation. Are our spoken conversations doomed to be reduced to monotonic emulations of written exchanges? Certainly not. But many of us could stand to talk a little more and text a little less.

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