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Between The Lines: On The Enduring Power Of Oral Communication

Email, instant messaging and social networks have multiplied and accelerated written exchanges both inside and outside of work. But there are certain functions that only oral communication can achieve.

Listen closely
Listen closely
Laurent Assouly


PARIS — In an era of virtually constant electronic communication, businesses continue to declare that people are at the heart of their operations. Yet the new technology has greatly reduced oral exchanges, sparking the so-called syndrome of urban loneliness inside the world of work as well.

The increased use of various forms of electronic written communication, such as email, instant messaging and social networks, and the attraction of their playful interfaces have contributed to an unparalleled flow of information. But this development has come at the expense of a tremendous slowdown in face-to-face verbal communication and the emergence of a widespread feeling of dehumanization.

An analysis of the contents of written exchanges reveals that the art of epistolary expression is being reinvented where it was least expected: within the company, den of the refined writing of e-mails, where the choice of the right word reigned, with the chiseling of sentences, the use of polite syntax and semantics to pass the legal test in case a missive were to be used as a piece of evidence, and the nuanced choice of recipients, whether direct or by copy.

59% of employees say they "sometimes feel isolated," according to a June 2019 survey

Companies have adopted new ways to communicate in recent years, by implementing fast messaging or collaborative communication platforms (Slack, Teams). This partly mixed up the cards by proposing a discursive form stripped to its extreme where civilities no longer have any reason to be, sacrificed at the altar of a rhetorical asceticism already taken up for many years by senior business leaders as a distinction inherent to their function.

Let us remember that writing, much more than oral communication, leaves indelible traces of more or less contextualized exchanges whose analysis reveals a whole series of social markers and mutual adjustments: care given to the text, style, level of spelling, popularity on the company's social networks — elements that take up a significant part of employees' cognitive and emotional capacities.

Sense of isolation

As a consequence of this communication frenzy, a syndrome of loneliness hitherto confined to civil society is now contaminating the corporate world: Almost 59% of employees say they "sometimes feel isolated," according to a June 2019 survey by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP), an international polling firm.

Speaking in person is the main solution to this isolation, because it activates mechanisms of socialization that require rituals and body language that are the essence of sociability.

Linguist Walter J. Ong takes the example of the person who, by speaking, brings humans together in groups, but as soon as he asks his audience to read a text, the unity of the audience is broken by the fact that each reader then enters his own world.

Tuning in or out? — Photo: Andrew Turner

This preference for the written word and the predominance of sight over hearing are often an expression of laziness, a more or less conscious strategy of avoidance vis-a-vis physical confrontation with an individual or a group. Speaking to each other face-to-face becomes a behavioral incongruity, a waste of time, because as soon as the writing becomes the rule, the temptation to shorten interactions by writing becomes huge.

We must devote attention to finding the right balance between oral and written communication, and harmony between these two complementary discursive forms. This requires an understanding of their respective singularities. To deprive oneself of oral exchanges, and of the physical confrontation it implies, is to miss a significant part of other essential forms of communication such as body language, voice intonation, eye contact, dress code, because these communicative clues contribute to rebalancing the perception of others and reduce the over-interpretation inherent to written language. The "sacralization" of the written word reduces physical contact and creates a situation of physical distance that fuels a feeling of widespread dehumanization.

Between a humanizing oral language and writing as "intellectual technology," we are undoubtedly at a time of unprecedented convergence of modes of expression, "secondary orality" (video content, mobile phones...) and inflation of textual culture from the web that force us to reinvent our behavior.

This detour through theory reinforces us in the idea that it is the systematization of the use of email in many non-essential situations that insidiously erodes trust among employees.

Laurent Assouly is an French ethnologist.

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Photograph of Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden walking side by side in the Filoli Estate in the U.S. state of California​

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