Monday, October 5, 2009

Speaking and Writing

Matthew Yglesias spells out what I've been promoting as a significant truth of the world for ages:

My experience ... is that actually talking to people about things is an extremely misleading way of acquiring information. You wind up getting unduly swayed by the fact that some people are more charismatic than others. What would worry me would not be the prospect of a president who doesn’t spend lots of time talking to military commanders a couple of rungs below him in the chain of command, but the prospect of a president who lacked the patience to read written reports from people in which they set out their views in the most considered way possible.
Highly-extroverted people might dismiss this as a bias that flows from introversion, to which I respond -- in writing -- that, no, on the contrary, extroverts are the ones with the mental derangement, and I renew my call to the medical-psychological-industrial complex to find a cure for extroversion before it does any more damage to our collective well-being and peace of mind. I would hate see us resort to plan B, in which all extroverts are banished to an isolated colony where they would be free to waste their lives chattering about nothing but would be permanently ostracized from the members of the human family who find it beneficial to think before speaking. I would not hate it very much, but I would hate it.

My bias for writing and against face-to-face communication did not originate, but received a significant boost, during the years when I worked closely with a group of salesmen. Raging extroverts all, they loved arranging everything, no matter how intricate or elaborate, either over the phone or in a "quick" face-to-face meeting. This set us up for countless instances, each more hilarious than the last, in which the arrangements did not match up with whatever they remembered having blabbered, whereupon I became the Bad Listener whose execrable laxity and egregious inattention to detail wrecked the vision they had so carefully worked out over thousands of fast-moving but flawless syllables.


In agreement with Matt Yglesias, I am wary of situations where significant and complex matters -- say, how things are going in Afghanistan as communicated between the president and top military advisors -- is left to chats, whether in person or via telephone. Of course the parties should be "on speaking terms" if possible, but that's beside the point. To the degree that details count and the consequences matter, more care should be taken in what is communicated and how. In this connection, the virtue of writing is in how it forces the speaker to slow down, measure his thoughts, strive for clarity and completeness, and otherwise get things right.


Anonymous said...

Just curious - are extroverts unable to think before speaking? Is that the definition of extrovert - someone who speaks without thinking?

Without introverts would thoughtful verbal communication not exist?

Dale said...

Anon, no and yes. Extroverts are (I think) capable of thinking before speaking, but they prefer to think by speaking. But "those who speak before thinking" is a serviceable definition of their kind.

I pity them in those moments when they're not annoying the shit out of me.