Speaking, Writing or Emailing

Clearly The Tension Between Written And Verbal Communication Remains.

By Thomas J. Roach

A great irony in the history of communication technology involves the Greek Philosopher Plato. In his dialogue, “the Phaedrus,” he complains that the new practice of writing on paper will cause people to lose their ability to commit words to memory and, more importantly, to reason. 

He argues that written words only remind us of the thoughts they represent. He scorns them, comparing them to paintings that go on saying the same thing over and over forever. Of course, we only know about Plato’s warning because he wrote it down. 

Valid Point

Yet, Plato’s point is valid. A weight of meaning is carried in the texture of face-to-face human interaction that is not easily reproduced in print. One can learn much from reading Plato’s dialogues, but who wouldn’t trade his books for a year as a pupil, asking and answering questions in his skeptical Academy of Athens? 

Hence, while no conversation with a philosopher could replace the breadth of information in a university library, it also true that some of our most impactful learning is through human interaction. When someone asks what shaped you as a person, a worker, or as a decision-maker, do you respond with a list of books or with a list of names? 

Clearly the tension between written and verbal communication remains. As business communicators we choose between employee hiring interviews and pre-employment testing, between training and training manuals, and between meetings and emails. 

Plato implies that writing makes us stupid. The more dependent we are on writing, the less we maintain mental habits to remind us of what is important. 

  • Can you build a grocery list in your head all week and recall it as you walk through the aisles of the grocery store? 
  • Can you list your professional goals for the next six months? 
  • Can you quote your company’s mission statement? 

It seems likely that our cognitive inner worlds would look very different if we had to warehouse information every day like the ancient Greeks. 

Written Communication

Of course, it would be foolish to argue that we can get by without the written word. Our governments, economic systems and social structures would collapse without it. We are more dependent on written communication than Plato could have imagined, maybe even more so than we imagine.

I point this out because now, 2,500 years after Plato raised his concern about writing on paper, writing on paper itself is becoming an obsolete practice. Writing on paper is being replaced by writing on hard drives, and, who would believe it, writing on the cloud. 

Plato didn’t realize it, but pen and paper messaging had one big advantage over memorization: it provided a measure of permanence. We might learn more about philosophy by chatting with Socrates, but we wouldn’t be building Teslas, developing smartphones, and landing rockets on Mars if our research was constrained to chatting with scientists and memorizing formulas. The technically complex 21st century emerges from an accumulation of knowledge derived from books. 

Books and Bytes

So is it problematic, then, to replace books with bytes? If Plato were here, would he reverse himself and advise us to preserve writing on paper and beware of less substantial digital communication that can be lost in an electrical storm, or that can become inaccessible as software and hardware evolve?

I think we need to look at these options less as evolutionary stages and more as unique and viable choices. Verbal interaction, writing on paper and saving to the cloud are all useful communication processes. The bulk of our communication will continue to be digital, mentoring will always be best in person, and printed paper will still add substance to institutional documents like mission statements, awards, and even the employee newspaper. 

I employ Plato’s theory in the classroom – I give oral quizzes by calling on each of my Introduction to Public Relations students and asking a question. But there is no escaping the irony. My oral quiz is on the reading assignment for the day, and the reading assignment has to be downloaded from the cloud. 

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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