Thursday, July 9, 2009

It's All Talk

“Talk to me, you never talk to me. It seems that I can speak,
I can hear my voice shouting out, but there’s no reply at all.
Listen to me, you never listen to me…
I’ve been trying but we cannot connect. And there’s no reply at all, no reply at all.”
- Genesis

"If we could touch one another, if these our separate entities could come to grips, clenched like a Chinese puzzle...yesterday
I stood in a crowded street that was live with people, and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone. Everyone silent, moving...Take my hand. Speak to me."

- Muriel Rukeyser (from the poem Effort at Speech Between Two People)

“Everybody's talking and no one says a word” – John Lennon

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about communication. Well, really more about miscommunication. It seems that even with the vast array of interaction options available to the average person today, less actual communication is occurring.

The dictionary defines communication as “The exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, signals, writing, or behavior.” The term dates to the 1300s, and is derived from the Latin word “communicare” which means “to impart, share”, or literally “to make common”.

Simply put, it is the exchange of ideas or concepts. It involves
1) a sender
2) a receiver
3) a concept
(Since dictating and/or pontificating does not qualify by this definition, we can now confirm what I’ve long suspected - no one on Fox News actually communicates).

Research shows that 55% of communication impact is determined by body language--postures, gestures, and eye contact. 38% is based on the tone of voice, and only 7% by the content or the words used in the communication process. (Mehrabian and Ferris. "Inference of Attitude from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels". In: The Journal of Counseling Psychology Vol.31, 1967, pp.248-52)

That means that face to face situations provide the best chance for successful communication because 100% of the communication mechanisms can be put to good use. A phone conversation takes away a whopping 55% of those capabilities. Written communication brings you down to using only 7% of the available means, and that’s assuming you use well thought out words and content.

Which brings me to text messaging.

I’m not a big texter. In fact, I haven’t been able to figure out how to use mixed case, so any messages I send are in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS (giving the impression that I am very very enthusiastic about my message). But I suspect most of teenage America would quickly roll over and die without the ability to text message each other about every 20 seconds. And, call me crazy, but it seems like there is a lot more room for miscommunication here. Not only are you down to the 7% of communication mechanisms available to you, but, IMHO, you are not even using real words.

Then there is email, the communication method of choice for most of us over 30 (but under 65). You might think that with less abbreviations and less typing with our thumbs, we would have clearer communication, right? Yes, email is quick and yes, it is convenient. But I’m not so sure it is efficient or effective.

The main problem with email is that people assume that their intent is clear. They assume that their body language and tone of voice come through in an email. They add little emoticons :) or abbreviations (LOL) to try to convey what is nearly impossible to convey in brief written communication – the emotional context of the message. Consequently, messages often come across as abrupt, snarky, or downright rude when the writer had no intention of conveying any of those impressions.

I just did a quick check. So far this week, I have received, on average, 80 emails per day. It’s hard to believe that when I started working at this company, 15 years ago, we did NOT HAVE EMAIL (dramatic pause while anyone under the age of thirty picks their jaw up off the ground).

To further date myself, when I was in high school, we DID NOT HAVE COMPUTERS OR CELL PHONES (anyone under thirty is now thinking, “come on, you’re making this up!” No, it is true, I swear!).

How on earth did we communicate with each other in those dark, dark ages?

Let’s see….we wrote letters, memos, and notes. We talked on land lines (*gasp*) using phones with cords that anchored you within 8 feet of the base unit (unless your parents were really nice and bought the 20 foot phone cord that reached your bedroom). Sometimes we even talked in person!

When I was in high school, we passed the time in our more boring classes (read: all of our classes), by writing each other notes. We wrote about our crushes, about our families, about our thoughts. We folded these notes into intricate shapes and slipped them to each other when passing in the hall between classes.

To this day I can recognize the handwriting of any of my high school friends. I still have a box of these notes in my attic. Can text messaging really replace all that?

Even in person, we don’t communicate well. We pass others on the street and avoid eye contact, all the while talking on our cell phones. We greet our co-workers with “how are you” but don’t expect to hear anything other than “fine, and you?”. We don’t know our grocery store clerk, our dry cleaner, or our bank teller.

I know that some actual communication must be taking place, or we would cease to function as a society. But lately, anytime I’m in public, I am reminded of the words of Simon and Garfunkel:
And in the naked light I saw
ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
people hearing without listening

Think about it. And the next time you ask someone “how are you?”, try looking them in the eye, and paying attention to the answer.


  1. ahhh, phones with cords and parents picking up said phones to find out with whom we were talking or tell us it was too late to be on the phone. I guess they went the way of cassette tapes, eh?
    P.S. This comment...could have been better communicated face to face ;)

  2. In my experience boys never did pass notes the way, apparently, girls did. However, with today's technology, boys text each other frequently. So, while quality of girls communication has decreased from high levels to medium or low, boys' communication has increased dramatically. Maybe boys and girls will start to understand each other now that they have a common (lowest common denominator) form of communication: the keypad on the cellphone.