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Losing Your Voice: The Traps of Text

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This post is 400 words long, a typical length for this and many other blogs. The price of words is not the same everywhere, however: 200 words in a handwritten letter is perfunctory; in an email, unexceptional; in an instant message, overwhelming. On the small screen, anything long enough to express ourselves with context and nuance appears as ranting when presented within a speech bubble, so we try to be pithy, to be compressed – and then, so that brevity is not taken as curtness, decorate with emoji to paint emotion by numbers.

Instant messaging has been a huge upending of human communication, not least because the applications involved have changed over a short space of time, and there are intergenerational differences of messaging culture. Anyone who had to work with unreliable SMS reflexively sends, and subconsciously expects to receive, those short “ok/cool/yup” messages to let the other party know the message has been read. WhatsApp natives (for want of a better word) work differently – put the two on either end of a ‘conversation’ and offence may be accidentally given or taken. We have not yet had the time, nor may we ever have, to evolve stable social conventions over who we should message, when, what to reasonably expect as a response time, and when to stop.

The other week I caught a bad cough and for a few days lost my voice completely. It was a salutary experience in two ways. Firstly, I became aware of how much I do talk; every time I had to stop myself interjecting into a conversation to rest my voice, I realised when it would have been to pull things towards me instead of building the dialogue collectively. Secondly, from having to rely on text messaging, the gulf in mutual understanding between that medium and the spoken word became horribly clear. We fool ourselves that because a text chat is sitting there, archived, in black and white (or white and black, given today’s fashionable dark themes) there is no danger of misunderstanding – but all sides are reading the same text in isolation, from inside their own private context. That there is no true meeting of minds only emerges later, oftentimes in confusion and recrimination, and to put things right requires us to speak to each other, to listen, and speak again, as we have done for thousands of years.

Do not lose your voice.

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