This Just In

My friend Wayne Krantz has sent along a link to an item in the New York Times about the social perils of email.

The article, by psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, is entitled E-Mail Is Easy to Write (and to Misread). In it, we learn that:

In contrast to a phone call or talking in person, e-mail can be emotionally impoverished when it comes to nonverbal messages that add nuance and valence to our words. The typed words are denuded of the rich emotional context we convey in person or over the phone.

We are not, of course, startled to hear this. What is interesting, though, is that it should rise to the level of newsworthiness.

Reading further:

New findings have uncovered a design flaw at the interface where the brain encounters a computer screen: there are no online channels for the multiple signals the brain uses to calibrate emotions.

Face-to-face interaction, by contrast, is information-rich. We interpret what people say to us not only from their tone and facial expressions, but also from their body language and pacing, as well as their synchronization with what we do and say.

New findings! Uncalibrated emotions! A design flaw at the screen-brain interface! Words alone can’t do the job! This does sound dire. Pressing on:

Most crucially, the brain’s social circuitry mimics in our neurons what’s happening in the other person’s brain, keeping us on the same wavelength emotionally. This neural dance creates an instant rapport that arises from an enormous number of parallel information processors, all working instantaneously and out of our awareness.

In contrast to a phone call or talking in person, e-mail can be emotionally impoverished when it comes to nonverbal messages that add nuance and valence to our words. The typed words are denuded of the rich emotional context we convey in person or over the phone.

Yes, we’d heard about the “social circuitry” the author refers to; he’s talking about mirror neurons, and their discovery is indeed quite recent. But the knowledge that when people speak they also communicate with expression, inflection, and gesture most certainly is not.

Furthermore, the limitations Dr. Goleman describes are not unique to email, but apply to the written word in all its forms: “snail mail”, blog posts, novels, and of course newspaper articles too. What is interesting about this piece is that the author is presenting the problem only in terms of “electronic” versus “face-to-face” channels — as if communication in writing were some newfangled Internet application, when in fact for most of our history letter-writing was the only way people could communicate with others outside their local orbit. This meant that people actually had to bring some skill and sensitivity to the task — abilities for which their education was expected to prepare them — and they managed very well.

The “problem”, I think, is due to twentieth-century advances in transportation and communication having made letter-writing — at one time an indispensable skill for any literate person — effectively obsolete. Why bother writing a friend when you can just pick up the phone, or jump in the car and pay a visit? By the time I became an adult, in the 1970’s, letter-writing had become something that only old folks, or soldiers on combat deployments, wasted their time on. And by the time email became a common medium, in the 1990’s, the art had been abandoned for so long that written correspondence must have seemed, to most people, to be a radically new invention, and was certainly something in which they had scant experience, and no expertise.

People seem to have little concern nowadays about being able to express themselves well in writing — I have met many college graduates who are, it seems to me, barely literate — but it’s hard to imagine that conveying nuances of emotion in personal correspondence was ever much of a problem for Dickens, say, or Churchill, or any of their educated contemporaries. It was simply understood that the words on the page were all one had to work with, and one was expected to be able to use them effectively. One might also suspect that people brought a different sort of attention to their reading as well.

Oh well, I suppose nothing can be done. This would be a perfect moment to rant for a few paragraphs about how civilization is going straight to hell, but I won’t bother. It’s always been going to hell, and it never seems to get there. It’s just changing, that’s all, as usual.

But at least I don’t have to like it.

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