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.


Geneviève said...
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Geneviève said...
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Julie Pippert said...

I agree with this!

Writing has historically been a major form of communication. Once upon a time, letter writing was a taught art.

Preserved written communication is a lovely glimpse into history. My family has preserved letters for hundreds of years. It's amazing to read an exchange between two sisters, one of whom married a man who decided to pioneer his way from the east coast to Washington State. That sister wrote many, many letters during the winter when she was sometimes alone in their cabin for weeks while her husband traveled to hunt and get supplies.

Or there are the lesser letters between my great-grandmother and her sister, who lived 50 miles apart, which then was a "visit rarely" distance. They wrote daily, often briefly, about anything, such as, "John took his first steps today! Just had to let you know! Love, Katie"

Now, we have emails and blogs...some of which will, I think, survive as a reflection of our life and times. I find this a good thing, mostly.

I agree that people don't understand literacy doesn't mean "ability to write." I once said something about that in my blog, about being a writer and editor and how this isn't much respected.

I use punctuation creatively, though, to communicate how I speak, the inflexion and pauses and drama that could be lost in writing. And I choose words to do the same.

Your closing sentence is dead on, in mu opinion.

thailandchani said...

While I can't stand truly bad writing (misplaced apostrophes and such), I guess I'm rather flexible when it comes to other types of alternative expression. As long as I can understand what someone's message is, I don't care much whether they are perfect. The purpose of writing for me is to be expressive rather than precise.



Anonymous said...

It sounds like you are comparing emails and novels. In a two sentence email, a person (without the expression of voice or body language) is not going to be able to communicate much. What he/she communicates can sometimes be misinterpreted because it lacks voice and therefore expression of emotion.
A novel takes many pages and thoughts to build up emotion and carries us sometimes through a persons life or part of it. How can that be compared to an email?

jen said...

I am guilty as charged of course, as I've never learned how to properly insert a comma. But I also think the way we communicate -attacking or condescending, for example, can be off-putting as well and I know I then fail to understand the author's intent because it's clouded by feelings of ick.

Horsefeathers, you say? (sorry, but that cracked me up. Horsefeathers).

I also think its a matter of time. Having the time required to actually spend in discourse rather than a momentary allocation. We spread too thin, there is too much stimuli, we can't be satisfied quickly enough.

Diana said...

As a ninth grade Global Literature teacher in NYC, my most basic curricular goal is to foster literacy. Weeks ago, the yearlong goal of "digging deeply" (exploring the subtext) was introduced. We recently read J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” and we slowly, very slowly, unpacked its meaning and implications. When students finally discovered all that rests beyond the surface, astonishment and pride spread across their adorable faces; they had not considered the varied possibilities suggested by Salinger (it helps that many of these issues are scandalous or seemingly inappropriate for the classroom!). As a teacher of 13-14 year old readers, I am often frightened by their initial inability to move past the literal level of a text; more often, however, I am frightened by my impatience. “Higher order thinking,” to use the popular pedagogical phrase accompanying a major instructional push, is a skill, after all. Many of my students do not yet know how to move from observation to interpretation. They mistrust instinctual responses, assume there is no validity to their unorthodox interpretations, or suppress their imagination altogether (assuming a "right answer" is being sought and their own minds cannot produce it). Other students seem to have a more innate interpretative ability. In any event, I know that it is necessary to push their thinking – and boost the confidence of these readers – before they begin reading Gilgamesh and The Odyssey.

Better readers and writers we all could be. So, while I am certainly guilty of emotionally ambiguous e-mail, I would never read or write anything of greater importance with such haste or carelessness. Maybe the immediacy of our society asks my students to do the opposite. Am I barking up the wrong tree? Perhaps I should ask them to analyze their text-message conversations, study online chatting for hidden meaning, or write essays about MySpace comments!

Geneviève said...
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Cecilieaux said...

What a garden of prose has developed! A few responses follow.

Geneviève, from France you probably don't get to see a TV commercial for a Web search engine that promises "instant getification." It's an icon for your first point. Alice's mirror and computer screen, I have to think about.

I'm more pessimistic, Julie, as to the likely survival of all this cyberworld, given that it's inextricably tied to finite fuel resources. We need to go back to writing some letters on paper in blue-black or green ink (my favorite), if only for the archeologists among our great-grandchildren.

Content vs. form. How philosophical, Chani! I'm always undecided.

My comparisons included short stories and verse, Anon, but I do get your point. Maybe we all need to slow down our words? Maybe too many books are published? (Stop the presses and let me catch up!)

Time is of the essence, Jen, when you are at your stage as a young mother. Savor it, though, stop for the occasional second of crises and emotional limbs being pulled in every direction, take a mental snapshot and go on. Twenty years from now you'll look back on those memories fondly.

Diana, I want to go back to school in your class!