The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about the authenticity of different communication mediums. Its central claim was that, as methods of communication go, text-based methods are generally considered the least “authentic.” That is, according to their cited case studies and survey results, a plurality of people tend to consider emails or text messages to be easily faked, devoid of real emotion or sentiment, and a bit of a cop-out. Now, I realize that I am somewhat biased, being an author, but even outside of the realm of stories I think that the article takes an unfortunately confrontational tract. There are times, occasions, and circumstances that befit any communication medium, and in each one might be better than another, but that in no way detracts from another.
It might seem silly for me to worry about what this article has to say, and perhaps it is. My relationship with the written word is deeper than a merely professional interest; written communication has formed a core part of many of my closest relationships over the years. I maintain several close friendships with people primarily via e-mail and/or text messages, and my wife and I even spent six years in a distance relationship, communicating primarily through text messages and letters. So I have a long, personal history of attaching great stock to the written word, and it is perhaps for that reason that I tend to trust what is written more than what is spoken. (If nothing else, the article had the effect of making me reflect upon my relationship with written communication.)
However, despite a certain distance that is intrinsic to the written word (the primary argument for its supposed “inauthenticity”), there are several objective reasons for placing a greater trust in the written word than it what people say or imply. Most significantly, the written word is, well, written. It is committed to a medium, and once shared, it has a certain, relative permanence. Unless you go around recording your video calls or your daily interactions, you can’t go back and view what was said or what expressions were associated. With the written word, there is a certain, greater commitment, because it is much easier to hold someone accountable to what they wrote.
Related to that accountability is the tendency for deliberation. Because the written word can be revised, edited, and modified before being distributed, the content is likely to be more thoroughly considered, better supported, and more clearly elucidated than something that is simply said aloud. People in my experience are far more likely to spout nonsense and prevarications from their mouths than from their pens. The written word also provides the receiver with a far greater amount of time to digest, consider, and respond to a missive. Unlike speaking, the written word is a deliberative, rather than impulsive, process of communication.
This is not to say that spoken and verbal communication, whether through digital mediums or in person, face to face, lack valuable. For some purposes, especially the development of interpersonal understanding, verbal communication can be faster (although faster does not necessarily mean better). I am certainly not saying that I would like to have another six years of a distance relationship with my wife. However, to write off textual methods of communication as less authentic or less valuable that verbal communication is hasty, and frankly ill-considered. Each has its merits, and its flaws. The secret to effective communication, if there is such a thing, is probably in understanding when and how to use both.