The power of spoken words in a typed-out world

by Kristin on August 30, 2012

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Jhaymesisviphotography

“From now on, if there’s a change of plans you need to TALK to me—as in, you need to speak words, with your mouth, in my ear!”

I was not trying to be snarky—really. It was worth reminding my 14-year-old daughter what it means to “talk.” After all, today’s teen could easily swap the word “talk” with “get in touch,” which of course includes rapidly firing away misspelled words from a tiny phone keyboard.

Texting is second nature for my daughters and their friends—it’s like breathing, something they can do without really thinking.

Maybe that was the problem.

The new “talk to me” rule came about following a minor mother-daughter texting snafu. Q had asked, via text, if she and a friend could go somewhere, then she either missed my response (actually or “conveniently”), or she only read the first, not the second, sentence in my response. Either way, our line of communication was muddled.

I could write an entire post about the challenges of parenting teenagers, and another post about the pros and cons of parenting kids with cell phones. But what I really want to address today is all that is lost when our communications—parental or otherwise—are typed rather than spoken. Here are just a few thoughts that have come to mind this week:

- Intention gets lost in the interest of brevity. This is especially the case when we are typing on our phones, whether we’re texting or tweeting—what we’re saying and why we’re saying it get separated, like a pair of socks in the laundry room. In the case of texts with my daughter, there tends to be a bluntness that’s not couched in the love and concern I would communicate in person, either through additional words or facial expressions.

- Attention suffers when we aren’t actively engaged in real time. When two people are in conversation face-to-face, eye contact keeps them anchored, but even conversations over the phone demand a certain level of real-time response that keeps people engaged. If we’re only half engaged in a typed communication, which is usually the case for me, we’re probably devoting only about half of our mental and emotional faculties to making the exchange successful.

- When we’re hiding behind our computers and phones, we tend to type things we wouldn’t say. And I’m not talking about things like LOL. I’m talking about name-calling, attacks, and general rudeness. Recently I read something somewhere about how people turn into different creatures in their cars, acting out aggressive, rude behaviors that they would never display in a restaurant or grocery store. It’s as if the vehicle protects them somehow, creating a shield of anonymity. The same phenomenon seems to hover around Facebook and other forms of social media. Just consider blog comments that come across as attacks, like the one I wrote about earlier this week. The commenter was able to communicate in a rude way while hiding behind the anonymity of his/her handle: “Lovedandforgiven.” Perhaps this person would say the same things to my face, but I doubt it.

- Typed communications are easier to ignore. Sometimes, like in the case of Lovedandforgiven, the choice not to respond is a wonderful thing. But I also sense it’s becoming a broader, distressing pattern, simply because it’s an easy, available option. Twenty years ago, people didn’t often have the option of ignoring someone who was trying to communicate with them. We had to respond. And even if the response served to shut that person out—perhaps an unwanted admirer—we were far more likely to share clear communications than we were to send a clear message (which in most cases ends up being a passive-aggressive, silent one).

- And finally, details and subtleties get lost along the way. I’m not suggesting that speaking a conversation is a fool-proof method for getting everything right. But live conversations do allow more opportunities for questions and follow up—if there’s a misunderstanding, it’s more likely to get cleared up when people are talking. When we type our communications—whether via email, text or social media—those opportunities for questions and followup get shut down. I’m much less likely to ask “What do you mean?” when I’m not sure I understand. I’m also slower to sense when I’m being misunderstood (which means I offer fewer preventative clarifications). This was definitely at play in the recent miscommunication with my daughter, and it’s also something I experience regularly with clients in my copywriting business. Picking up the phone to ask a question or two is always more thorough, fruitful and efficient than sending the same questions in an email.

Maybe the real issue is that our typed communications tend to be a lot like the election-season sound-bites we’re all-too familiar with: At first they seem full of meaning, but when you unpack them you discover ideas that have been taken out of context and can’t be backed up. They’re just a bunch of words that dissolve when you try to really grasp them. All of our typed words are at risk of being like that, which makes it seem like a good time to instill a “talk to me” policy in other areas of my life, beyond parenting.

Do you have ideas about how to make sure your communications actually say what they mean and mean what they say?

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  • HopefulLeigh

    I’m not a fan of text messaging for all of these reasons. I’m OK if it’s to confirm details but I don’t understand people who want to have entire conversations via text. I’m an expressive talker and texting doesn’t allow for tone, inflection, intent, and so on.

    Plus, I have a really crappy texting plan. So there’s that. But seriously, when did it become so difficult to call someone?

  • ed cyzewski

    We had a policy at this church where I used to work where we could only use e-mail to share information. Any conflicts or other issues needed to be worked out in person or through a phone call. That has been a helpful guide to me on many occasions!

  • Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams

    This really resonates with me. I miss long phone conversations (or even short ones) with family and friends. A powerful reminder to make more of an effort – thanks, Kristin.

  • Terry Bernardini

    Great thoughts, Kristen. Here’s another problem I see with even adult texting: it allows a constant outlet for expression. Whereas people used to go through a day of work and recap at the end of the day to loved ones, now they spit out comments throughout the day (usually negative). The art of reflection is lost.

  • Esther Emery

    I took a long and serious break from electronic communication of all kinds for exactly these reasons. But texting isn’t going away, is it? Maybe we have to teach kids the practice of silence, the ability to be quiet, and out of communication, as groundwork training for listening? Easy for me to say, my kids are a lot younger than yours are. Maybe they’ll teach us, in fifteen years or so, when they’ve figured it out.

  • Ron S

    The article and the comments are right on. Our new forms of communication do have a serious downside and they are not going to go away. As is obvious as I sit here typing a comment in response to a blog. All the things you say are true about the dangers are true Kristin, and even when I have been in groups that promise not to use email for anything other than content information, rarely do we live up to that good intention – and, pretty consistently we pay for the lapses. I wish I knew the answer. As my engineering friend often reminds me, “Every problem an engineer solves leads to two more problems that need to be solved.” Seems pretty much true about life in general as well. But, in addition to this typed message, Kristin, I have a hug for you next time I see you that says “thanks for bringing this up.” As one who uses the computer more and more, I need to never let the warning be far from my mind.

  • Jen

    Ahhhhh guilty as charged too. I’ve never cared much for phone conversation, so it didn’t take me long to embrace texting. I’ve enjoyed that throughout the day I can send quick messages and feel connected to friends that live far away. But it’s true that for real, deeper communication, there is nothing like a face-to-face conversation. And when somebody randomly calls me, well…. that seems more meaningful now too.

    It’s funny that I saw your post after reading this article a friend posted on Twitter.

  • Kristin T.

    HopefulLeigh, yes—it’s one thing to think texting is just easier in this moment, but it’s another thing to reach a place where phone conversations seem awkward and an inconvenience. “Kids these days” definitely seem to feel that way, which makes me wonder if phone conversation skills are becoming a thing of the past.

    ed, that seems like a smart guideline. It’s interesting to me that lots of organizations seem to want everything communicated via email, because it’s a way to keep a record of what was said. I realize that’s helpful in some situations, but it also seems to turn every interpersonal communication into a courtroom or something. It can change the entire tone, and when we’re talking about conflict resolution and other important interactions, I think it does far more harm than good.

    Katie, my mom and I only talk once a week, usually, but once we’re on the phone we can’t seem to keep it under an hour! It’s about as impossible as a mom of three getting out of Target with a bill under $100. :)

    Terry, yes!! I live in a college town and often write at cafes, so I do a lot of people watching. Observing that constant outlet all around me never ceases to amaze me. In many cases these are phone calls—college girls talking to their moms about every little thing/decision/hiccup in their days. The art of reflection is definitely lost, as well as the art of problem solving alone, and the ability to prioritize, and let go of the little things.

    Esther, “groundwork training for listening”—this is SO important. And they also need to learn to focus on one thing, like a book or homework assignment, for a stretch of time without being distracted every 3 minutes by a text. I know that sounds old-fashioned, but I’ve seen several articles about how these interruptions are actually changing the brain development of our teens. Last year we had a rule for our oldest daughter who stays up until 11 or so—she had to plug in her phone (in the kitchen) by 9. I think we need to reinstate that this year!

  • Kristin T.

    Ron S., yes, there’s an irony at work here, as we have this conversation via our computers! But at the same time, I know it’s likely the conversation wouldn’t happen at all *without* these convenient platforms. It’s one of those both/and situations that we need to seek balance within. I’m glad we live in the same town and can enjoy one another’s thoughts both on the computer AND in person!

    Jen, texting is a great way to let someone know you’re thinking about them—Jason and I send a such a text to each other at some point every day, and while it’s a small thing I think it can have a significant impact. And speaking of phone calls, it’s funny, they used to be significant because long distance calls were so expensive; now they mean a lot because they’re so rare! (Thanks for the interesting link!)