Monday, December 2, 2013

Modes of Communication

       My wife is from South East Asia. Our first encounters were two brief conversations during her short stay in Hawaii for her brother Gerard's graduation from H.P.U., but since I knew she was heading back, I left it at that. (Gerard and I were friends from church.)
     Three years passed and Gerard was at Texas A&M pursuing an MBA degree when he wrote me a letter that mentioned in passing how Deanne still remembered me. I wrote back and mentioned in passing that I remembered her and would love to hear from her again. Five months later, I received a letter from Deanne and thus we began our correspondence.
     We started with snail mail—the best—then moved on to faxes to speed things up. She had a work e-mail account (rather high-tech at the time), but since I hadn't an e-mail hookup or even a computer at home, I sent faxes, which I transmitted from fee-for-service businesses at about a dollar per (handwritten) page.
     And we made phone calls, eventually, that averaged five hundred dollars a month. I hadn't yet heard of phone cards, still in their infancy, so I lost out on substantial savings but never regretted it since the phone bills came in handy when it came time to establish the legitimacy of our relationship when I later applied for a fiance visa for her to come over for us to marry.
     My first personal e-mail account came about a decade later—required of all parents of cub scouters. My son had been acting out in school, so we decided he needed outside interests, so I signed him up for something we both could enjoy. (As a kid, I had enjoyed scouting's fun, life-enriching experiences.)
     I immediately detested the medium. Fifteen plus messages would regularly appear in my in box, ninety percent of which were unnecessary and wasted my time to open, read, and discard. Some parents made a habit of “responding to all”, so I had to open all these irrelevant side conversations, FYI's, and links to items of (dis)interest. And computer face-time, which I always deemed a necessary evil, became even more burdensome. “Lazy correspondence” is what I consider e-mails. Rather than a nice, friendly phone call or hand-written personal letter (remember that?), I stare at hard-to-read colored lights on a cold, partial screen that has to be scrolled down just to view an entire message which is nearly always poorly written, and full of grammatical and spelling errors and misinformation. And rarely do thing get settled timely. There's all too often a back-and-forth, trying to decide on good dates, times, activities, facilities availability, and other have-to-get-it-right minutia. (Who will bring a starch? I'll bring Costco pizza. Do we have cups? I can bring juice syrup if someone has pitchers. Will we need ice? I have ice chests if...)
     I've thought about this some and rate e-mail to be about the lowest form of communication, based largely on the well-established fact that over ninety percent of communication is non-verbal. The highest form of communication is, thus, in-person, face-to-face. Being a visual person, I love it the best. Everything's out in the open, no hiding behind a screen or off in a room somewhere. Facial expressions, body language, even scent, dress, demeanor, and eye contact all count.
     Quite a bit lower on the scale (not counting Skype and teleconferencing, which I have never done) is telephone communications. At least you can hear the person's voice, cadence, pauses, and breathing and thus, perhaps, decode some emotions (angry? happy? chipper? down?), although I suggest never, ever to fight with a loved one over the phone where it's much too easy to get carried away and act far worse than in person. Some of the worst conversations in my life have been over the phone. Just remembering the angry hurt and bitter exchanges—it's hard to believe how uncivil things got. And being hung up on is like having a door slammed in your face—it's difficult to take and recover from.
     A bit lower on the scale but sometimes even better, are hand-written letters. Here you actually can see, touch, feel, and smell a piece of original art (even if it's just scribbles) that the other created. It may include tear or ketchup stains, lipstick smears, or even perfumed fragrance. The space, neatness and size of alphabets and words, and the paragraphing and corrections can suggest speed of writing, thoughts, and emotions. And they make wonderful keepsakes (e.g. love letters and birthday or anniversary cards). Handwritten letters also allow time for and almost force thoughtful composition—you can only write so fast, which tends to improve expressiveness and eliminate hurtful words and passages.
     Last of all are the cold and all-too-often impersonal mass e-mails. The worst correspondences I have ever received were through this medium. My best friend misinterpreted an e-mail response I sent him that ridiculed his taste in a certain book (we talk on the phone this way all the time and share guffaws) and he shot back one of the most insulting, belittling invective filled harangues I have ever received. I almost shot back an equally belittling counter-offensive when I realized this is not worth losing our twenty-five year friendship over. With angry, thumping heart, I gave an even, measured response that allowed us both to save face (retain our self dignities). We haven't exchanged an e-mail since and it's just as well as there's been no further hard feelings between us.
     A recent study found that electronic communications (including e-mails, twitter, and facebook posts) topped the list of things that can cause marital discord, meaning, don't use it as a substitute for face-to-face communications.
     I'm not surprised. If I had my choice, we'd eliminate the medium. Life wasn't any worse without it. As a youth, we'd have scout meetings every Tuesday, seven o'clock. You'd be told at each meeting what to expect or prepare for the next meeting. Occasional friendly phone calls settled last minute details—even these were seldom urgent: if someone couldn't be reached, we'd just make do and be prepared to improvise. Doing without may have required a bit more planning (a good thing) and sometimes more individual interaction (phone calls, usually), but isn't improved interpersonal relationships worth it?

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