The written word is now the dominant form of global communication. Whether it’s an abbreviated text, a wordy email or, as recent events have vividly illustrated, an ill-judged WhatsApp exchange, we now invariably reach for a keyboard when we want to communicate.
The total number of voice calls made from UK mobile phones and landlines has declined significantly. Take this staggering statistic: in 2012, a total of 235 billion minutes of UK calls were made. By last year, this had declined to 202 billion (if you’re wondering, the shortfall is the equivalent of spending around 60,000 years on the phone).
Given the ever-presence of the phone in our pocket it’s quite surprising how little we want to talk. Which is a pity because – next to meeting someone face-to-face – talking on the phone is the best way to get to know someone and often sort out an issue which might take a prolonged written exchange. Of course, the expediency of copying others into an exchange often drives this behaviour, and you cannot deny the efficiency of not having to repeat yourself subsequently to everyone who may ‘need-to-know’.
However, with the importance of the written word for communication in both a professional and private capacity, perhaps we should pay more attention to how we write?
The common issue with the written word in business communication is that the short-form style which we often employ can appear impersonal, abrupt and, at worst, unclear. In short, the nuance of what we’re trying to say can get lost.
What might be a perfectly acceptable one sentence question in-person, can feel curt when fired across in an email. And a lack of basic formatting/punctuation or even word choice can give the wrong impression and ultimately lead to crossed-wires and misunderstandings.
Whilst the solution might be to pick up the phone and speak to someone in person, that sometimes is not an option. We all know people whose phone seems to always go to voicemail and, in the media sector, an increasing number of journalists are very clear that they only wish to be approached by email.
And, of course, our native language adds another layer of complexity. If you’re writing in a language which is not your own then the syntax of your mother tongue will still shape how you express yourself. The upside is that there is no accent to obscure the importance of what you’re saying.
This also applies to the natives of a country. A recent study by the University of Essex has revealed that in London, the traditional extremes of ‘Cockney’ or the ‘King’s English’ have been supplanted by three new variants: Southern British English; Estuary English; and Multi-Cultural London English – with Prince Harry, Adele and Stormzy being cited as examples of each respectively. Each are all English but all have their own linguistic nuance.
Perhaps the key to knowing when to write or call should be defined by knowing when each mode will be most effective. So, stopping to think about when an email will be most effective (for example, when you need to give the recipient some thinking time) or you should call (maybe when previous emails have failed to elicit a response?) is perhaps always the key. But don’t write-off the phone: it can still be good to talk.