Text v Speech

Following a recent conversation with some friends about how easily the written word can be misinterpreted I started thinking about the implications of this in world where increasingly communicate using emails, text messages and other forms of textual communication. Communication is a risky but worthwhile business! In Neuro-Linguistic Programming-based counselling the subjectivity of most communcation is demonstrated by the asking the client to think of some simple illustrative phrase like “the cat sat on the mat”. The therapist may then ask the client to describe cat, mat and their environment. It quickly becomes obvious that we appreciate to differing extents the biases within our interpretation of even a simple phrase. In person-to-person spoken communication we consciously and subconsciously ignore a whole range of possible interpretations by trying to focus on the emotional intent of the other person. Are they lying? Do they have my best interests at heart? Was that an insult? (if it was I don’t want to get them to repeat it and give them the chance to insult me again!). Several perceptive friends of mine have referred to a peculiar property of email we call “emotional amplification”. This is a property of email relating to:

  • Speed of communication. Many emails, particularly those used in professional communication are sent with the expectation that the subject matter will be understood and acted upon, upon receipt. Therefore there is pressure on the author to convey logical and emotional intent of the message immediately. Conveying emotional intent immediately (like “this is EXTREMELY urgent”) can lead to overstatement
  • Its half-duplex nature. You don’t get immediate feedback to each point so a long email that expresses many points can find itself in an emotional cul-de-sac where the reader becomes more and more irritated with each point.

With text messages this becomes exascerbated by the enforced brevity of a 160 character limit. The reader has first to decode txt spk or “text speak” and then must try to interpret what the intent of the message was. Chances are the writer has left much unsaid in an attempt at brevity. There are definitely many many conversations that should not be carried out over text messages. In general, anything where conveying emotional intent in a complex situation is vital shouldn’t be sent using text.
This problem was noticed at the inception of the internet and smilies were created to denote emotional intent. These appear fun to users of IRC and Instant Messaging but their purpose is quite serious. Preventing or defusing potentially damaging situations by conveying emotional intent symbolically. Other attempts to do this include Prosidic Font. Prosody is the ‘song or rhythm of everyday speech”. Prosidic font was an MIT project which encoded prosody (temporal, dynamic and emotional nature of speech) using a specially developed font. This is useful because
Research into emotion and speech has found that people can recognize affect with 60% reliability when context and meaning are obscured
I’ll leave you with a comment from the famous Canadian communications expert Marshall McLuhan:

When most words are written, they become, of course, a part of the visual world. Like most of the elements of the visual world, they become static things and lose, as such, the dynamism which is so characteristic of the auditory world in general, and of the spoken word in particular. They lose much of the personal element…They lose those emotional overtones and emphases…Thus, in general, words, by becoming visible, join a world of relative indifference to the viewer – a word from which the magic ‘power’ of the word has been abstracted.
Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), quoting J.C. Carothers, writing in Psychiatry, November 1959.