The Vanishing Art of Written Communication

By Alfred Sunderland 

As I sat down in front of my computer at work the other day, I saw something in my inbox that stung me. Three minutes prior, I had received an email from a coworker (who we'll call 'Donna') who works only five cubicles down from me.  Before reading the note, I was wondering in the back of my mind why Donna did not just stop by or pick up the phone.  As I opened the email, I leaned in closer and shook my head in disbelief.  This is what was written:




Now mind you, I am not an obsessive-compulsive person by nature. Yet I doubt there is a single person who would consider this to be a professionally written communication.  The note was all in caps, contained spelling and grammatical errors, and the overall tone of the note was off-putting.  It was similar to an annoying text I received from my roommate a couple days ago asking if I could return his DVD to the video store.  I looked around the office and saw the blue-lit faces of employees as they stared at their computer screens or scrolled through their phones.  It is quite evident that the art of written communication is slowly vanishing from society-at-large.

It has been said that chivalry is dead.  Now, with the age of smart phones and social media, I believe the subtlety of written communication is also dying.  Sadly, not much care is put into writing any more as the pen and stationary have become nearly obsolete in today’s fast-paced society.  As soon as a thought arises, it is almost simultaneously typed out and sent.  Messages to friends and family have become standardized, short and devoid of any character or deeper meaning.  Instead of exploring all of the possible ways to express how you feel, you now have 5 - 10 abbreviations such as lol, lmao and smh that are universally understood and universally meaningless.  You also have emoticons that produce happy or sad little yellow faces next to your message or as a standalone in response to a message.  If you’re in a relationship, good luck trying to decipher the nuances and complexities of the other person based upon email or text messages.

I feel grateful for not growing up in the impersonal age of email and smart phones. When I was in junior high, I wrote poems to a girl for three months straight.  Every time she climbed aboard the school bus, I would hand her my small outpouring of love in a note and she would smile shyly at me.  In high school, I wrote pages and pages of love letters to my girlfriend.  I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.  I believe that life is language.  What we are saying to each other through written communication is a direct reflection of the quality of our thoughts and lives.

According to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, an astounding 32 million adults in the U.S. cannot read.  Twenty-one percent of American adults read below the fifth-grade level.  The current literacy statistics have not changed in the past ten years. Judging by the billions of acronym and error-laden messages circulated daily, these statistics seem quite realistic.  Even the well-educated legions of corporate employees seem to have fallen into the efficiency trap in written communication, as my earlier example illustrates.  The art of language is vanishing, but who has a vested staking in its defense?  Everyone.  People in all roles will reach a point where they must employ the full power of language with all of its subtlety and nuance to articulate a vision, defend a course of action, or persuade others to their cause.  If that capacity is gone, they will be unable to compete with those who’ve got it.  This includes businesspeople, scientists, politicians, artists, entrepreneurs, homemakers and everybody else.

Even a rock artist.  According to Stryker from the Los Angeles rock group Millennium, ‘People underestimate the importance of good written communication.  A couple of months ago I received a terse, poorly worded email from an artist manager following up on the status of a production collaboration.  The email was signed with a ‘W’.  I immediately had this gut feeling that I did not want to do business with this person because of all of the implied signals of poor character neatly encapsulated in that email.  I soon cancelled the deal and explained that written communication that is thoughtless, rife with errors, and blunt to the point of being rude wasn’t going to cut it.  And please don’t sign a ‘W’ for your name like you’re the former president.  That was the last straw.  He lost a ten-thousand dollar deal.  I retained my dignity.’

The importance of creativity has been marginalized in the past two decades, driven by the society’s push towards rationalism and efficiency.  Yet, creativity is the ability to invent, imagine, problem-solve and think out of the box- abilities that are all central to our survival and prosperity.  Written language is a big part of expressing that creativity.  If we continue to limit written communication to fewer and fewer words, we unwittingly limit our creative vocabulary and the very breadth and scope of our ideas. I pause, chuckling at my paranoia.  A couple hours later, I receive another note from my coworker Donna.  It just contains a question mark. smh. I give up.

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