Waiting in my chiropractor’s office, I picked up the September 2014 Special Edition of Scientific American on Evolution and read a fascinating interview with Sherry Turkle, a Sociologist at MIT. She asked an 18 year old male, “What’s wrong with conversation [vs. emailing]?” He answered, “It takes place in real time. You can’t control what you’re going to say.” Sherry commented that that is why a lot of people like to do their dealings on email–it’s not just the time shifting, it’s that you basically can get it right.
This struck a cord with me and made me think about pros and cons of using email as the ever increasing go-to for all forms of communication.
Many, especially women, feel if they say it JUST RIGHT, that their listeners will better hear their message and behave or respond in a desirable way. Women have always rehearsed their speeches, read self-help books on communication, and sent long hand-written letters when they wanted to get their message across to a spouse, a child, or a boss. Now they email.
The first problem that arises is that email turns even the most socially cautious person into an impulsive blabbermouth. A couple of quick revisions, if that, and our pointer finger hits the SEND button. And no more being able to fish poison-pen letters out of mail boxes with coat hangers. Emailing tends to disinhibit us. We say things in emails, usually off the top of our heads, that we would never say in person or even in a letter. We shout in ALL CAPS, belying our real timid mouse personalities. Our fingers tap out insulting and derogatory words we would never dare spout in public.
The second problem is that we begin to believe we have a real relationship with the person on the receiving end of our hyperspace missives. But they cannot hear the inflection in our voice or see the smile that says we are teasing, even when our emails are filled with a slew of IMHOs, LOLs, and OMGs. Nor can we see the smirk on their face as our words fall on deaf ears nor the faster than lightning move as they send our precious words to the trash bin hell.
The time delay (even the millisecond delay in instant messaging) prohibits a connection between emotions and words that can be so painful, or even delightful, in real conversation.
So with all its limitations and pitfalls, why are we as a nation and a world gravitating to email and similar forms of communication? Why are we allowing a brave new world of technology to degradate the one thing that most defines us a human beings, direct communication. We can teach a monkey to press keys on a keyboard and a remote voice on an iPhone can spout words at us. Sherry Turkle suggests that more and more people would actually settle for a relationship with “Her” of movie fame. Less messy.
I am the first to admit that email has often been the bane of my existence. Yes, I use it for convenience, but I also use it when I’m too fearful to speak the truth, when I think that a dozen revisions will make my words more acceptable or terribly enticing. I use it to force a connection that I know would never fly in person. I use it to circumvent my natural shyness, especially with the opposite sex.
But instead of making myself clearer, I make myself anathema, offending when not intending to do so, intruding where not welcome, badgering and manipulating, and then sending more emails to try to repair the damage.
What about blogging? Many of the same drawbacks but at least I’m giving you a chance to read or not read my pontifications. Yes, you can delete my emails without reading them. But who ever does that!
Here’s to real live conversations with all their hesitations, miscues, mumbling and stumbling, stuttering and stammering. Here’s to having a red face, a sweaty brow, and spinach between our teeth. And, most of all, here’s to precarious but precious moments of being human.