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Food for Thought

Communication skills

When I first enrolled in college, there was a required course that all liberal arts students had to pass. It was known campus-wide as Comm Skills 101, and its purpose was to make sure that we were able to speak and write effectively. This seemed like a no-brainer. After all. everyone needs to be able to communicate with others, not just for the sake of learning from our college courses, but for whatever we would be doing with our education for the rest of our lives. We were exposed to and drilled in a number of experiences in speaking and writing– everything from impromptu speeches to lengthy research papers.
Most freshmen passed the course by the second semester, everyone complained about having to take it, and most people, once it was behind them, never gave it another thought. Though reluctant to admit it, we all benefited from the experience, and it made most of our subsequent courses much easier.
Today, our high school students get the rough equivalent of that same course and enter college much better prepared. In my high school days, we had speech and composition classes but they were electives and the students who needed them the most were the ones who avoided them. Who would want to voluntarily take a class in public speaking if they suffered from severe stage fright? And who would sign up for a class that required them to write essays and reports if they were poor spellers and didn’t know a verb from a pronoun? Better to stay as far away from those as possible.
I find it a profound mystery that, in this age of instant communication, we seem to be regressing at an alarming rate. Next to face-to-face conversation, I believe that the written word is the most efficient and effective means of communication. In fact, in matters of importance, using the written word is better in a number of ways.
It allows us to reconsider the way we phrase our thoughts; we can pick and choose and find the exact word that best conveys our intention; and we have the option of throwing the thing in the wastebasket and starting all over from the beginning. The spoken word, on the other hand is like Pandora’s box– once it’s been said, there’s no turning back. No delete button. No chance to edit.
The biggest advantage offered by the spoken word is that we are in charge of the nuances of voice; the pace, emphasis, and inflections that color our speech. Face-to-face conversation is superior to telephone conversation because we also have the advantage of conveying– and interpreting– meaning through facial expression and body language.
I was recently reminded of this last advantage while I was having a lengthy telephone chat with a former high school classmate and college roommate who lives in Washington state. I initiated the call specifically to obtain details relating to the death of one of her cousins, a schoolmate of ours, and to give her the address of his brother who was our classmate. You might think that I’d be calling her for the address, but theirs was a large family with dozens of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, and I keep in touch with more of them than she does.
Because of our shared high school and college years, we always have lots of things to talk about on the rare occasions we do meet, and we talked for about a half hour. During that time, we interrupted each other probably two dozen times, and both spoke at once on several occasions. I don’t know how many times one or the other of us said, “Sorry, go ahead.” “You were saying?” or something equivalent. This would not happen in a face-to-face conversation because we would be looking at each other and know when the other was about to speak. I find the whole thing frustrating and, in the end, felt the conversation had been, at best, awkward.
Sometimes, what I was about to say was diverted by another topic she brought up, so it went unsaid. I’m sure the same thing happened to several thoughts she wanted to express, too. In the end, she got the address she wanted, but I never did get any of the details about our friend’s death or funeral services.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed hearing her voice, which is missing when letters are exchanged. And a two-way exchange of thoughts and ideas generally covers more ground than the monolog that results when one of us writes a letter. Still, I’m going to write to her and wait for her to send the details back to me in black and white. I’ll try to remember to write soon– that’s another difference between spoken and written communication. When the telephone rings and you answer, the conversation happens now, not next week when you’ve had time to think about it.