A few days ago, I was sitting in the outdoor courtyard of a restaurant sharing a meal and bottle of wine with my daughter. We talk about a lot of things, her and me (you can leave a comment below about my horrific abuse of grammar), and sometimes hours go by while it seems that twenty minutes have passed.
As we sat over plates of fish and glasses of white wine, my daughter raised the idea of whether people really pay attention to other people when talking, whether we really notice the subtle cues that can give us more information. As a context for her idea, she is part of the generation that lives and dies by cell phones, and she brought up the difference between texting or talking on the phone, but her comment went broader.
She suggested that writing makes us lose the skill of truly paying attention to direct communication. That idea reminds me of Plato’s claim that according to Socrates, an Egyptian king said (notice how Plato sort of stands at a distance from the statement) that writing would make people lose the ability to remember things. They would just write things down and not even try to remember.
I thought my daughter’s idea was interesting, and I told her I was going to blog about it. She joked and gave me the first line I’ve used on this blog entry. It’s certainly true that a person speaking has an enormously greater range for communicating than someone writing. The voice can produce a remarkable diversity of sounds, and we’ve learned to recognize meaning from how words are said, not simply from the words themselves. Writing will never come close to this.
In addition to the sounds we make, we carry a summer garden of facial expressions, and we communicate quite a bit with the body itself. The way we sit, how we hold our shoulders or twist the body, these all express thoughts. Occcasionally when I’m in a crowd but have no one to talk to, I’ll start watching people’s hands. I try to imagine what a person could be saying to make them unconsciously jiggle one hand with the fingers slightly bent. What metaphors measure those movements? I also talk quite a bit with my hands, sometimes drawing pictures in the air like Monet when I speak.
To get all of these messages, of course, we have to pay attention. Is it possible that being able to put something into writing keeps us from concentrating on communication in person? I don’t think our ability to express our thoughts is necessarily decreased when we write. For me that’s true, but I’m a writer. I’m comfortable crafting with words, I like being able to take time to think, then revise, then polish.
However, communication is not just about expressing ourselves. Real communication is also—very much—about listening. Does my daughter have a point? I don’t know. I wasn’t listening. I was writing a note.