Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Is Email Communication? Part II

In this day and age it is now a given that we all make use of technology for communication to varying degrees, and many of us have mixed feelings on the subject. I know that the advent of technology changed my communication experience, but I have also observed its "dark side." And to top it all off, see the final comments for some past and present observations on the postal service.

Susan Schwartz responded (reprinted here with her permission):

I agree with you about the power and importance of the written word – but I know also that I don't consider email a record. Not really. Not a permanent one, at any rate, in the way that a letter is permanent. In the stacks of letters I have written and kept, there is part of the story of my life – no less. I would never say that about the emails I have exchanged. Another thing about email: I question whether it's the real me coming across much of the time. That's a discussion for a different time and place, but I know there are things I say in emails that I would never say face-to-face or, for that matter, in a letter. Emails have gotten me into trouble in a way that conversations and pen-on-paper letters never have. There is something disinhibiting about the medium, to my mind, and not in a good way.

I'm totally with you about how people who can't express themselves coherently in writing – or in conversation, for that matter – are not people with whom I'd like to be involved. That said, I question whether it's the real person who comes across in an online profile, or rather some construct.

As for iPods, to me they encase people in a kind of bubble: true, I'm unlikely to strike up conversation with strangers on the subway, iPod or no iPod, but i will NEVER start a conversation with someone wearing an iPod, will I? That said, it's not so much that iPods themselves hamper communication as that they make us unavailable to it. They close us off. I used to wear a Walkman while jogging and found that when I stopped I was far more aware of my surroundings.

The teenaged and young-adult children of some of my friends are forever texting, with the result that, while we can inhabit the same space physically, we are not communicating.

I wrote back to Susan:

I am certainly aware that as a columnist you are a public figure, and that many people feel free to express themselves in the most disobliging of terms… I suspect that is what you mean with your reference to a lack of inhibition in the medium. I translate for a press agency, which means that I read a number of publications online and when I have particularly enjoyed or disliked an article, I glance at the comments and often find the level of vehemence to be disturbing. You are certainly right that people seem to feel entirely justified in making gross verbal assaults by email, which they would not likely do face-to-face or in a letter.

This is probably due to the ease and immediacy of communication. After reading an article that has provoked a reaction, especially if you are already sitting at the computer, it is easy to bang out a response on the keyboard and hit send, without taking the time to let one's thoughts settle. Not everyone will save their rough draft and read it over the next day before sending. Mind you a conversation doesn't get saved either, but you will be made accountable for what you say if it is a face-to-face interaction with another person. Email does seem to have given rise to a culture of anonymity and impunity.

My sister, a high school teacher in Ottawa, does not use Facebook because it is not worth the grief of being exposed to the crude ramblings of some of the students.

So is email a permanent record? I guess it depends on how it is used. Is it for me, but then I segued into the medium as a logical extension of letter writing. It also depends on the technology. I have a box of 5.25 and 3.5 floppies of letters written using WordPerfect 4.2 that are now irrecoverable. I didn't make print copies and now it is too late. I have deleted folders of correspondence to and from people who are no longer part of my life (mainly old boyfriends). Letters are subject to this sort of hazard too. They are sometimes disposed of in the process of ending a period of one's life, or wind up the casualties of physical contingencies. A couple of years ago, my mother get told me it was about time that I cleared out the papers I had stored in her basement. There were a lot of letters and everything I had ever written from Cegep and university. So the boxes and their contents went out to recycling. I live in another country; there is no way I was going to haul all of those papers back with me. Come to think of it, I think that the box of floppies may have gone out in the garbage too.

[Here I respond to a couple of less than satisfactory social encounters that we both had with texting/iPod bearing individuals.] I guess it boils down to what is considered acceptable behavior. You cite the examples of text messaging during a wedding. I agree that that is completely unacceptable and disrespectful behavior. The same with messaging or taking calls during a meal (there had better be a house on fire, or someone in the throes of labor).

iPod's have their place. I wear one sometime when walking, when I feel the need for something to set the pace. And sometimes I leave it at home, when I want to listen to the wind and the birds in the park. They definitely impose a barrier to communication and send the message: "I am not available right now." But sometimes we need to take that personal space and claim it for ourselves.

On the subject of declining writing skills, chat, and iPods, Lori Weston wrote:

Some time ago, I would have been an indignant supporter of the "decline of Western civilization" school of thought on internet and virtual communications, if only because of the spelling errors and grammatical horrors that abound. But now, a few years later, text chat and email have become an extension of my communication with friends, not a replacement for it, and I have become much more tolerant of less than perfect grammar and syntax, especially when communication emanates from non-English speakers and teenagers (who one might argue speak their own dialect). I could even argue that those little smiley icons inserted in a text chat give it a dimension that communicates my intention to make a joke or be shocked about some bit of news faster than my facial expression.

Like you, I manage long distance relationships for long periods of time and I think that although there are times you need to hear a person's voice on the phone other end of the line, sometimes a text chat is the perfect telegraphic way to "talk" about something difficult, and spoken words might have ended up being a sputtering and inadequate tool. I agree with your point that quick emails and text chats are ephemeral and not always elegant, but speaking as a soon-to-be divorced woman, verbal conversations can also be "poor, nasty, brutish and short". (LOL...and note the advantage of internet that allowed me to double-check the Hobbes quote by googling it)

A final word - I am one of those who has my iPod as a constant companion and it serves the same purpose that used to be filled by the book I carried as a permanent fixture, reading on buses, while walking down the street, etc.: entertainment for an otherwise humdrum existence and a wall to block off conversation from annoying strangers. The one difference is that I can actually see where I am going when I am connected to music.

And as to the postal service, my recent experience:

In November I asked my mother to send my knitting needles because I wanted to make William a sweater, but they never arrived. Perhaps the postal authorities confiscated the package on the grounds that the needles constituted a dangerous item… not that they were going to do any harm to anyone in a package by themselves. Actually that weren't by themselves, she also sent a book and some DVDs. I have no doubt that somewhere, some ill-bred postal employee is watching films while his wife is clicking away on the needles in the background, with the copy of the Margaret Atwood book perhaps propping up the uneven table leg.

Sharon Cheema wrote:

Apparently rolls and rolls of film containing my early life in India were "lost" when my parents sent them to England to be processed. That upsets more than anything else that was taken because I was too young when I lived there to have any recollection of that period. So in fact they stole pieces of my life.

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