By Jim Benjamin, Director of the Graduate Studies in Communication, University of Toledo
The recent explosion of interest in social networking technology brings to light new dimensions of the spoken vs. written communication debate that occasionally emerges. Twitter uses written text, Facebook uses text and graphic images, “chat rooms” in on-line courses use text, and the “old” technologies of books and e-mails use written communication. Lecture captures, teleconferences, radio, television, and the “old” technologies of lectures, conversations, discussions, and telephones use oral communication.
The debate is ancient. Plato’s Phaedrus argued that the discovery of writing “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
We know, of course, that speaking and writing are not mutually exclusive, that the existence of one does not preclude the existence of the other. You can as easily write the words for a speech as you can speak the written words aloud. We also know that the arts of writing and speaking are both valuable skills communicators must develop. As a journalism educator you need to write out your lesson plans and instructions for activities and scripts for programs, but as a journalism educator you must also speak in class, talk with your students individually, and transform the script into an oral performance.
The newest technological development of virtual communication in computer simulated environment allows real time interaction with others and with the environment. Since these environments developed from text-based adventure games, it is not surprising that they started out with text interaction in multi-user domains and only more recently have they used microphones and speakers to allow oral recordings and interactions.
At a recent workshop on using Second Life in teaching communication, the workshop leaders indicated that they often start a conversation in voice mode but they usually end up reverting to text dialogue with each other. Given the opportunity to talk with each other, why do people revert to text messaging? Are there inherent advantages of texting versus speaking? There appear to be at least three.
First, there is the issue of privacy. When we are talking aloud, we can be overheard easily; but texting is silent. We can surreptitiously Instant Message with our smart phone beneath the table but using that same cell phone to talk to a friend makes the communication public ? even on topics that might better be kept private.
Second, texting has permanence but speaking is ephemeral. In a text dialogue you can scroll back through the conversation, but in an oral conversation you must rely on your memory to check on what was said, to further the conversation, and to keep the communication from becoming too repetitious.
Finally, texting allows some limited time for contemplation. If the conversation is serious and you want to choose your words carefully, you can use backspacing to choose a more felicitous expression. Furthermore, people are more tolerant of delays in text interactions. In oral interaction, your words are selected spontaneously, and once started, must be completed lest you sound inarticulate. Delays in responses are ill-tolerated in oral conversations. The listener will step in to fill the gap in the conversation or complete the speaker’s sentence. The impression made by someone speaking too slowly is that the person is either uninformed or perhaps lying.
To be fair, there appear to be three advantages that oral communication has over texting.
First, oral interaction allows sound to add meaning to the message. Features like tone, rate, and rhythm add meaning that even emoticons cannot convey. It is vocal quality that adds emphasis, emotion, and nuance lacking in silent text. Consider, for example, the difference between reading the lyrics on an album liner compared to hearing the song performed.
Second, oral communication is more spontaneous. We interact orally on the spur of the moment and that gives our communication a sense of liveliness, of being engaged in the moment with another that is missing in the more deliberate text messages, even in real time “chat” via text.
Finally, oral interaction is more adaptable. You can negotiate a future meeting time and place in a minute when you speak face-to-face. That same interaction takes much longer through text interaction, especially if more than two people are involved.
Communication technology addresses both oral and written communication. By recognizing the contributions each mode makes to effective communication, we deepen our understanding of the human uses of communication technology.
Jim Benjamin is the author of over two dozen research and instructional publications including articles in Philosophy and Rhetoric, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Communication Quarterly, and The Southern Speech Communication Journal and the lead article in Electronic Learning Communities: Current Issues and Best Practices. His areas of interest are organizational communication, visual communication, and rhetorical theory and criticism.