Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Electronic Emotions

For years people have been telling me that they can't tell emotions from e-mail and now The New York Times is enabling them. I beg to differ.

The writer in this case, Daniel Goleman, author of the best-seller Emotional Intelligence, is completely wrong. The problem with communication via e-mail is not that it lacks a voice, "body language" (now there's a bogus notion!) or visual cues. The real unspoken problem is that most people know neither how to read nor how to write.

This is exasperating to me, as someone who communicates most comfortably through the written word.

Oh, sure, everybody can write a shopping list and the simplest of declarative sentences: See Spot run. Run, Spot, run! But beyond that, the vast majority of people are lost.

Punctuation is a lost art.

When people want to pause they insert ellipses (...) because they're never sure about the function of the comma and the semi-colon. When they hold two adjectives in their mind and can't decide which should be used, they toss out a slash: "I am so happy/sad." Then there are emoticons. (:-P) Please!

Of course we don't understand one another: most people can't write. Yet that's only half of the equation. Because most can't read, either.

We read e-mails -- and blogs -- all too quickly. We scan because they are often poorly written. We make mistakes because we miss a crucial word.

Some readers invest their e-mail with sentiments that the words simply do not express. Many people will not settle for the plain meaning of words if they can imbue them with hidden meanings the average writer is not imaginative enough to have considered.

Others are faced with nonsense whose meaning is undecipherable. Who can blame them if they guess?

In the end, we think we can't communicate.

Horsefeathers! To assume that it is impossible to communicate unless words are accompanied by inflection and gestures is to suggest that we start burning every John Cheever short story, every Cervantes novel, every line ever written by Geoffrey Chaucer. These authors are all dead and there is not the slightest chance that anyone will ever get to "read" their body language.

Yet who has read Tess of the D'Urbervilles without becoming breathlessly overcome at the key rustling leaves scene that hints at (very offstage) lovemaking? Victorians were shocked by even Thomas Hardy's mild suggestion.

Language can be implicitly so clear that Moses Maimonides' Masoretes were able to insert vowel notations in Hebrew texts written thousands of years before their own time.

We need not grunt and signal what we want. We have language. Words and punctuation, the suggestion of sound and visual form. We are not animals.
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