Monday, January 19, 2009

Writing and Speech are Two Different Things

I'd have though the title of this post was an example of "stating the obvious", but apparently (at least according to a number of random comments I've come across recently), it isn't where some are concerned.

I'm going to try and keep this short, because I really want to ask here is: what is your impression of the relationship (cognitive, linguistic, etc.) between speech and writing?

For me, writing is definitely "easier" than speech as far as enabling me to produce actual, communicative content.

I used to imagine this was probably the case for pretty much everyone. But why, then, did my interactions with people tend to go so much better when I "met" them via e-mail first, as opposed to in person or on the phone first? I wondered well into my twenties why my co-workers were insisting on using the phone so much when there were all these wonderful text-based tools (such as email and instant-messaging) available.

But eventually I heard enough comments from other people such that I realized that I was considered unusual on the basis of my favored communicative mode.

And that's still really difficult to acknowledge, because, well, it feels so normal inside my head as far as this stuff goes.

But I digress.

If I was going to rank communication modalities in terms of how brain-friendly I find them that list would look something like this (favorites first, least-favorites last):

1 - Asynchronous text-based (e-mail, bulletin boards, etc.)
2 - Realtime text-based (Instant Messaging)
3 - Speech prepared in advance (i.e., something I've written down and can read from)
4 - Spontaneous in-person speech, supplemented by notes
5 - Spontaneous in-person speech, no notes
6 - Telephone (except if it's someone calling to say, for instance, "Hi, I'm coming to pick you up" -- those calls are OK because they are usually concise, clear, and giving me Very Important Data about when and how a transition is going to occur)

Of course this list does not include every possible means by which any two or more people might communicate. There are many forms of communication (diagrams, art, music, 3D models or sculpture, gestures, etc.) that can often "say" things that words simply aren't up to the task of. There are also forms I don't personally know how to use (such as American Sign Language) which I haven't included just due to my own lack of experience with them.

Nor does the list above represent my preferences at all times, with all people. There are some people I can communicate rather a lot with via realtime text chat (sometimes moreso than via email) just because our vocabularies and cognitive styles seem to be similar enough to allow us to use far fewer words than either of us might need to with less-similar people.

Nevertheless, it's a pretty accurate ranking when it comes to basic, everyday, language-based communication. In general, if I get tired, stressed, sensory-overloaded, or just plain "talked out", speech is the first thing to go.

I can usually write long after I've lost the ability to make speech make sense, and I can write asynchronously usually even when I can't respond fast enough to make an IM conversation worth having.

Furthermore I have a lot more knowledge-access in writing -- for years I thought I knew a lot less than I do about certain things because I'd been trained (mostly by teachers) to believe that "if you can't explain something verbally and spontaneously, you don't understand it".

But once I started writing out more of what seemed to be in my head -- as I fit the shapes of thoughts to phrases that way and saw them laid out in front of me, I found that I actually understood a lot more than I could possibly explain with my voice.

And I've heard the same thing, or things very similar, from many others on the autistic spectrum, including some of whom were thought to be basically unthinking or mostly unaware of their environments until they were given the opportunity to type or write or whatnot.

So, what are your preference rankings for this sort of thing? What contexts do you prefer different types of communication in, and why? And do you tend to assume that someone's writing ability is predictive of their speech ability, or vice versa, or not?

8 comments:

jimf said...

> For me, writing is definitely "easier" than speech
> as far as enabling me to produce actual, communicative
> content.

Yep, me too.

> I wondered well into my twenties why my co-workers were
> insisting on using the phone so much when there were all
> these wonderful text-based tools (such as email and
> instant-messaging) available.

If somebody comes to me with a question at work (either in
person or on the phone), I **always** tell them
to let me think about it and get back to them
via e-mail. There are some folks this clearly annoyed once
upon a time, but I think everybody who has known me for
any length of time comes to realize that this is how communication
**has** to be done with me, and that I'm not just blowing the
person off, and that the e-mail **will** answer the question,
and get written in a very short time, and to the best of my ability.

If the inquirer **insists** on getting an oral answer then
and there, I'm probably just going to shut down completely,
with long-lasting hard feelings on both sides.

(There was a guy like that a couple of decades ago when
I was working for the NYU Robotics Lab. He was one of
the "young genius" mathematicians at Courant -- a specialist
in linear algebra, as I recall. Had a pretty snotty
attitude, too. If he came to me with a computer
question that I couldn't answer **instantly** off the
top of my head, he'd just throw up his hands with a "never mind"
kind of demeanor -- "What kind of nudniks are we hiring around
here, anyway?" -- and prance off. I don't think we liked each
other very much.)

My best friend in high school used to joke "What **is** it
with you and the telephone, anyway? Did your parents
**beat** you with the phone, or something?" A few years
later, this same friend thought it was hysterically funny
that I should be working at AT&T, in Parsippany NJ
(as a programmer, on a consulting gig).

In the early 90's, when that scandalous nationwide long-distance
outage occurred (as a result of a programming error in the
software of a digital switching system, it turned out) --
the service interruption that actually elicited a public comment
from the President of the United States -- I was working at AT&T that
afternoon, and I needed to make a call out of the building.
When I couldn't get a dial tone, I thought to myself: "This
is the phone company, for God's sake. Can't they keep
their own phones working?" I was flabbergasted to find out
that evening that the whole country was having trouble
getting a dial tone that afternoon. My friend, when he heard
about this, said to me -- "It was **you**. Your phone karma
got into the system and poisoned it." ;->

ZombieFoodie said...

From Steven Pinker: "written language is very different from spoken language, because even though there's a universal grammar to spoken language, and it may be invented spontaneously by children, that's certainly not true of written language. Written language really was invented at a certain few points in recent history, and has to be taught with lessons, and is kind of an artificial contraption"

I have always been a better speaker (not a conversationalist... a speaker) than a writer. One of the problems I have with writing is that I am very bad at stopping. My brain goes nuts with all of the connections I could make and all of the extra clauses to add to increase specificity (not clarity...as you can tell). Then, there are always tweaks to the language that I want to add. I've been practicing letting things go by giving myself a time limit. Like now.

Thanks for your blog!

Go Democrats said...

I could not agree more with your post, Anne!

Personally, I love email, and I find that I can be more intelligent, and funnier, and much more coherent, on the printed page than I can in person. It's not just that my brain works much more slowly when I speak than when I write, but that there are all kinds of social anxieties present in the act of speaking that are just not present in the act of writing.

When you have a face-to-face interaction with someone, you can tell--and be influenced instantly by--any awkward pause; and those moments of awkwardness feed back into the rest of the conversation. It's even worse on the phone, where moments of silence are really just not acceptable.

Some of my colleagues don't understand why I like to teach online classes so much; but in fact, it's all about the phenomenon that you describe here. Thank you for thinking about this issue!

AnneC said...

jimf said:

If the inquirer **insists** on getting an oral answer then and there, I'm probably just going to shut down completely, with long-lasting hard feelings on both sides.

Ergh. Yes. This is familiar. :/ Though I don't run into as many instances of actual hard feelings (as far as I can tell) as there are of frustration and repeated misunderstandings.

For me there's also the fallout from a bad childhood habit to deal with -- that is, for a long time I didn't really know that deferring a question for later or saying "I need to think about that" was an option, so I would often just throw out semi-random phrases in the hopes that I'd happen upon the right combination of words to satisfy the other person (so they'd leave me alone).

I've encountered a few others on the autistic spectrum who describe having had similar experiences, and I bet this tendency/habit probably accounts for how some of us end up misdiagnosed with "thought disorder". There seems to be a tremendously pervasive assumption amongst many that speech (as opposed to writing or any other potential form of communication) is some sort of "window" into a person's actual thought processes, when in fact for some of us, trying to force our thoughts into speech in realtime results in obfuscation of our thought processes.

(A doctor I saw once (not a psychiatrist -- he was actually the MD at my college's health center) commented that I seemed to display something called flight of ideas in speech, and while he didn't go on to try and refer me to have my head examined (so to speak), I was quite thoroughly weirded out when I looked up that term and saw what it was associated with.)

AnneC said...

ZombieFoodie: Re. the Pinker quote: Weird, for me writing has always seemed a lot more "natural". Also, I didn't learn written language (or reading) through lessons -- my parents noted that I was paying attention to and recognizing letters on food labels and signs by 12-13 months of age (I was very probably hyperlexic).

I wonder if some people's brains just tend to "map" to some forms of communication more effectively than others early in life -- perhaps it's speech for the majority, but I do think that the "artificial contraption" of writing probably just fits some people's brain wiring better than speech does, despite its relatively recent historical emergence.

AnneC said...

Go Democrats wrote:

Personally, I love email, and I find that I can be more intelligent, and funnier, and much more coherent, on the printed page than I can in person.

Yep. Same here for the most part.

When you have a face-to-face interaction with someone, you can tell--and be influenced instantly by--any awkward pause; and those moments of awkwardness feed back into the rest of the conversation. It's even worse on the phone, where moments of silence are really just not acceptable.

Interesting. I don't actually experience pauses as "awkward", though if most people do then that would explain some of what I've experienced. If someone suddenly pauses in a conversation I guess I just tend to assume they're trying to think of what to say next, because that's generally what I'm doing when I pause (that, or processing what has just been said by the other person, which can take a while).

But, (and I don't know if this might qualify as my sensing "awkwardness" after all) I have noticed that people tend to get very impatient about getting a response, and that this is indeed more pronounced on the phone. I've had a lot of salespeople/donation solicitors who call just hang up on me because I guess I take too long to answer (not that I mind this so much -- I don't like being phone-solicited anyway). And I've also gotten a lot of people say "What's wrong?" when I am quiet too long. And in addition to that, I've noticed that people like to repeat themselves to fill in silences when in fact that is probably the worst thing they could be doing, because I am trying to use that silence to figure out what they just said!

Some of my colleagues don't understand why I like to teach online classes so much; but in fact, it's all about the phenomenon that you describe here. Thank you for thinking about this issue!

Sure. It's definitely an issue that comes up a lot for me!

celandine said...

I have the same preferences: email is easier than in-person speech, which is easier than telephone. That's moderated somewhat as I've grown older (I think high school is the high point of social anxiety for most of us) but I still dislike long phone conversations and phone interviews.

Just thinking about it, it seems to be a matter of control and information. When you go from writing to speech, you lose control over the timing and editing of your replies. When you go from speech to phone, you lose information about the other person's expression and body language.

One interesting thing is that my father, whose first language isn't English, is a much more witty and discursive in his e-mails than he is in person. It's not that he has trouble with speaking English; if you talked to him, you'd get the impression of someone who speaks English perfectly but is just curt and doesn't like to talk much. But in writing he's chatty and uninhibited.

I suspect that even for people fluent in another language, there's a disconnect in the ability to enjoy words. I can understand French poetry, but it almost never conveys emotion to me. My dad loved reading literature in his native Romanian, but in English it tends to ring hollow to him.

I know foreigners and autistics aren't the same, but I wonder if there might be something similar in language processing.

Krista said...

I am a writer and I am also well-spoken. As a result, I tend to find both modes of communication good in different contexts.

I find that I am more precise when I write. I prefer writing when discussing complex matters. If I'm talking, I often find myself saying "I'll have to think about that some more." and possibly ending the discussion, whereas if I were writing, I would often have been able to process what they said, and express myself, more fully. Perhaps an apt expression would be "I don't think well on my feet."

I am also better with social graces when I write, because I have time to edit and to think about how what I say will sound. When I speak, I am more spontaneous, and this causes problems sometimes. For example, I might momentarily read into something someone said, and respond accordingly. I also tend to just say what I think, as I think it, without modifying for clarity, understandability, or politeness. Usually my thoughts about other people are nice enough, and I have enough inhibition to refrain from speaking those thoughts which are more obviously inappropriate to blurt out. However, it's the gray areas I have trouble with, and that trouble comes out most in speech. Also, sometimes my stories might actually be longer in speech because I do not have the time to think of more concise ways to tell them.

Despite these disadvantages when I speak, I still find speech to be fun and effective in many contexts, especially if the content is basic, or when getting to know someone. When I speak, the words I use are different. The words are sometimes less precise, but mainly they reflect a more off-the-cuff style, with simpler language and shorter sentences. I enjoy long conversations with my friends because we can say more in less time, and it includes the emotion and humor that comes with tone of voice and timing.

Finally, in response to your question about assumptions, though I try not to make assumptions, I do figure that someone who writes well is probably well-spoken. However, the inverse is not true in my experience. People who speak well often write poorly. There are so many exceptions to rules and stereotypes that assumptions are just not productive.