You’ve got soliloquy

E-mail is not only replacing conversations, studies suggest. As CHRISTINE FISCHER GUY reports, it’s changing our whole style of communication—or lack of it.

Suzanne Boles, a London, Ontario writer, is deep in negotiations with a potential client. Over a space of a couple of weeks, they’ve had several conversations. The thing is, Suzanne still doesn’t know what the client wants. She’s fuzzy about the angle of the story, the terms of payment, and the rights her client wants to buy.

How can that be? The answer is simple, and increasingly common: though they’ve exchanged words, they’ve never seen each other’s face or heard each other’s voice. The entire “conversation” happened by email. Yet when Ms Boles finally decided that enough was enough and picked up the phone, she was ready to get to work ten minutes later.

Boles says that she’ll never make a business decision based entirely on an email discussion. But studies are showing that for many others, email is steadily supplanting spoken conversations. A recent study of email exchanges between family and friends by the Pew Internet and American Life project revealed that emails seeking advice increased by 70% in the past year, and those that expressed worries increased by 63% during the same period.

A couple of years ago, we would have considered it irresponsible and even evasive to relegate such intimate conversations to the bits and bytes of cyberspace. These days, only a few topics are still considered off-limits for email messages. One is bad news, according to a recent online language study conducted by University of Waterloo professor Neil Randall and MSN.ca. Eighty-five percent of the study’s participants, who all used email, said that they’d pick up the phone rather than send an email if they had bad news to tell. But given the current pattern, how long will it be before people find electronic pink slips in their Inbox?

The business world, in fact, has already shown its predilection for electronic conversation. Many international companies have set up workgroups that span the globe, relying on various communication technologies to reduce the cost of meetings and discussions. When they studied teams like these in comparison with those toiling in the same location, Stanford researchers Mark Mortensen and Pamela Hinds were surprised to discover almost no difference in inclination to fire off an email; those who could pop their head over a cubical wall or take a stroll down the hall were just as likely to use technology to mediate their conversation as their counterparts whose team members worked in a different time zone.

In another study of work teams spread across continents, team members used only email to interact—with disastrous results. Chasms of misunderstanding yawned between workers. “They thought they were in communication, and didn’t know there were misunderstandings occurring,” reports Catherine Durnell Cramton, a George Mason University professor.

If you’re genuinely seeking to be understood, allowing email to supplant your spoken conversations could be a real problem. But an American University professor wonders if that’s the true goal of email messages. “How much are we talking and not caring who’s listening?” asks Naomi Baron, an American University linguistics professor, author of Alphabet to Email and the forthcoming Cybertalk: Language in the New Millenium. “If you’re standing face to face and keep talking, someone will eventually say shut up.” Email, on the other hand, allows us to yak indefinitely. Many email writers, she says, are achieving exactly what they set out to achieve: a conversational monopoly. She uses the word “soliloquistic” to describe the results.

“An awful lot of the communicating we do, we don’t do because we really want the other person to understand. We do it because we want to hear ourselves talk, we want to feel that we have some power or control over the person we’re speaking to,” she says. She cites the rise in call-in shows across Canada and the US as evidence that people like the sound of their own voice. People call in not seeking answers but to hear themselves talking on national media. Email serves the same purpose. “It’s like standing in Hyde Park on a soap box. You don’t have to listen to what anyone says back to you. What email as a medium does is makes it too easy to not have to give the other side a chance.”

When the other side doesn’t get a chance, what’s left of the conversation? Is it really a conversation at all? “Simultaneous feedback is a fundamental feature of conversation,” says David Crystal, a professor of linguistics at the University of Wales who recently published Language and the Internet. “In face-to-face conversation, and telephone conversation, I say something, and while I’m saying it, you can acknowledge that I’m saying it by going ‘Uh huh’ or ‘yeah’ or ‘go on.’ When we’re looking at each other, your face will tell me whether you’re understanding me or objecting to what I’m saying.

“Email does not allow for simultaneous feedback,” he continues, “for the simple reason that the person receiving the message doesn’t know he’s got the message until he’s received it. He cannot react to it until a time lag has gone by.”

Boles says that’s one of the reasons that her email negotiation stalled. In one electronic conversation, her client wrote that she had an MBA; Boles assumed that the woman was asserting her ability. In the telephone conversation, Boles was pleasantly surprised to discover that the opposite was true. “She said to me, ‘I have an MBA, I am not a writer. I’m open to your suggestions.’”

The ability to have a turn-taking conversation, Baron says, is an essential social skill—one worth preserving, assuming we want society to function properly. “We have to be able to not just walk out when we don’t know what to say next.” If we feel we’ve accomplished our goal in writing, “articulately or not, and therefore are no longer obligated to face a person and look that person in the eye, I think we lose as a society.”

Research shows Baron’s concerns to be well founded. In a highly publicized study of Internet behaviour, Carnegie Mellon researchers Robert Kraut and Sara Kiesler reported that the Internet was no longer an enemy to contemporary society, as their study a few years earlier had shown. But those conclusions held true only when study participants were extroverted or socially-active people. Onliners who were introverted or had poor social ties—those whose connection with others took place mainly in cyberspace—became more depressed and lonely as they spent more time on the ‘Net. Relationships born online, noted the authors, were the sickly siblings of those born off-line. Clearly, something essential to the human condition is missing when we substitute human contact with a handful of letters on a screen.

On top of that, communicating by email means that we’re writing more, possibly more than ever before. Without a strong command of the written language, miscommunication isn’t just possible, it’s likely. Even with skill, says Crystal, writing is a poor substitute for speech.

“The written language has always been more ambiguous than the spoken language,” he reports. “It’s perfectly possible to send a letter to somebody and have the letter go down the wrong way. The same thing is happening with email.”

Clearly, continuing along the current trajectory—allowing email to replace an increasing number of spoken conversations—is a risky proposition. Part of being human is learning the social skills demanded by the presence of another person; we cannot, it seems, survive well without human contact. But is email a harbinger of inescapable social doom?

Crystal thinks not. He says that each time other communication technologies appeared on the horizon (the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone), people heard death knells for contemporary culture. History showed those worries to be unfounded each time, he says; each technology eventually finds its place among the others, engendering a new variety of language as it settles in. “The rest of language has carried on very happily, developing in its own way.”

In email, Crystal sees just one more communication technology to be used at our discretion. He says that the English language is richer for its presence because it gives us yet another way to express ourselves and connect with one another. He likens modes of communication to sets of clothing in a wardrobe, and email to a new outfit. “Email is allowing us to do things that had never been possible in language before,” he says. Its addition to the wardrobe means we have another outfit to wear, not that it’s the only thing in the closet.

Crystal doesn’t believe we’ll use email to the point of excluding all other forms of communication. He acknowledges its growing pains, saying we’re in a “transition period,” and believes education to be the answer. Baron, too, would like to see a curriculum that stressed genres of writing, teaching students when each type was appropriate.

Like that new outfit in the closet, email can’t—and shouldn’t—be worn for all occasions. “I don’t think we’re ever going to find one mode of communication that’s good for all communicative purposes,” muses Randall, who’s also positive on online communication while acknowledging its limitations. “How could you ever replace walking into a room, looking at a person, and seeing that electric spark there? I don’t think you can.”