The perils of the written word

Having (as you may have noticed) indulged in a surfeit of bloggery during the last couple of weeks, I’ve realised there is a problem with the written word. Two, actually.

It’s a well-known fact that when someone is talking to us, only a small proportion of what we “hear” comes from the words that are used. I’ve found it hard to pinpoint reliable numbers, but I have heard figures like this: 50% of what we take in is from body language, 43% from the tone of voice, and only 7% from the words that are used.

Rather revealing, really. It means that even if I pick up the phone to someone rather than emailing them, they are still only going to get half the message I might convey if we were speaking in person.

(If anyone can point me towards some reliable data about this, by the way, I’d be very interested to see it.)

I realised last weekend – talking to a friend in the pub, as it happens, face to face – that even these percentages only tell part of the story. When we’re doing the talking, particularly if we have something important to say, we are consciously or unconsciously watching the other person, gauging their reaction, checking to see if we have lost their interest, modifying our language and tone and body language to get the message across.

(Susan Cain made this point about public speaking in her book Quiet, noting how a speaker might throw in a humorous aside, or perhaps just pause, to keep the audience with them.)

That’s the first problem with the written word. The second is that when I write, I tend to pick my words carefully. Many of my blog posts can be days or even weeks in the making, as I edit and review and refine what I say. And as I write, I hear myself speaking, colouring and amplifying what I say with the inflections of my voice, pausing for emphasis, highlighting an important phrase. I suspect I’ve always done this; I don’t know if it is possible to write without unconsciously hearing your words being spoken.

But I have no way of knowing how you will read them. I can’t put those pauses and inflections and nuances onto the page. I can’t adjust what I say based on how you receive it. Someone who knows me well, whom I’ve spent time talking to in person, might hear my voice and my inflections when she reads my words on the screen, might get more of what I’m trying to say than a stranger would; but I can’t take that for granted.

Nor do I have any control over how much attention you pay to my words. You, the reader, are a free agent; you owe me nothing, and you’re perfectly free to skim-read a message I have spent two weeks trying to perfect.

In bloggery or fiction, or friendly conversation for that matter, that’s all part of the game. If you choose to engage with what I say, of course you will overlay it with your own ideas and perspectives, and you will enrich my ideas by doing so. If you don’t, so be it.

In other contexts, though, it’s less helpful. Twice recently I’ve had my own (written) words misquoted back at me – the recipients had read my emails, taken in what they thought I was saying (perhaps overlaying their own sub-text on my message, inferring a tone of voice that I didn’t mean to imply – or perhaps just not bothering to read the message thoroughly enough!), and replied to something I never said.

The art of listening

It comes at a cost sometimes. I had a job interview two weeks ago where I was asked how I deal with competing priorities in my workload. I replied that if I have five things to do, I assess which is the most urgent and which is the most important (seldom the same one), and I do one thing at a time, breaking the work down to manageable chunks so I can stop and change tasks if I need to. I thought it was a decent answer, and it has the merit of being both true and, in my opinion, the best way to work. There is plenty of evidence that multitasking is an inefficient and ineffective way to go about things.

When I got the interview feedback, though, they said that one of the reasons they had not appointed me was that I’d said I could only think about one thing at a time.

No. No, I didn’t say that. I said the exact opposite.

Language, as I’ve said before, is a precision tool. And a versatile one. But it is a tool that both speaker and listener need to know how to use. And for any one conversation to flourish, they need to be using it the same way.

It’s a problem I’ve come across more than once. For some years I had a friend who was prone to believing she knew what I was going to say, and an expert at putting her own interpretation on people’s words. I often had to pick my words with care, but in the process – and in the pauses that occurred from time to time – she would as often as not jump in with her own end to my half-formed sentences, her own conclusions. (I’ve often wondered whether Susan Cain would recognise this as a common problem for introverts in an extrovert world.)

I wrote a piece a couple of years ago called “The art of reading“. I think a lot of my comments there apply equally well to the skill of listening. A good listener, like my friend in the pub the other night, is a rare and precious thing.

Back onto the page

All that said, sometimes the words need to go back onto the page. A few weeks ago I attended a poetry reading by the superb Robyn Bolam. Of the four poets reading their work that night, it was she who had me listening most carefully, and it was her book I bought at the end.

But her reading, though it was moving and thought-provoking, gave me only a whisper of the real power of her poetry. That only came when I was able to curl up with New Wings and read it in my own time, dwelling on a word here and a phrase there, going back and forth on the page to see how she changes our perception of a phrase as it reappears through the poem.

Poetry needs to be brought to life like that, through readings and musical settings; but it also needs to be allowed to stay with us and work on us from the inside. A poetry reading, like a musical setting, gives life and colour to the words on the page; but it also focuses the listener’s attention in one direction.

A case in point is the line “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”, from Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting, which appears in both Britten’s War Requiem and Francis Pott‘s magnificent oratorio The Cloud of Unknowing. The settings of that one line are strikingly similar, but the effect is quite different, not least because of the way Pott juxtaposes it with a line from French poet René Arcos: “The dead are all on the same side” – a line which punctuates and colours the entire work, a cry for common humanity which is constantly shouted down by the implacable voices of self-righteous aggression.

There is therefore an element of futility and irrecoverable loss to “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” in The Cloud of Unknowing; where in the War Requiem it is a line of personal reconciliation and resolution, creating the emotional space for the final duet between the two combatants, “Let us sleep now…”.

(Whether there is any overall, universal resolution at the end of the War Requiem is an entirely different question, one for a separate post. And I give you fair warning, Pott, that there will be a post about The Cloud of Unknowing in due course. Is that a promise or a threat? Yes it is.)

Letting go

How Wilfred Owen would have responded to two such different interpretations of his poem, we will never know. He said what he wanted to say through his poetry; others – composers, performers, readers – have invested it with new and maybe different meanings. All this brings me back to Salley Vickers’ comment that “until the reader engages with the book, I’d say about 45 per cent of the book isn’t even there.”

Language may be a precision tool, but it is a tool which defies overall control. It distributes its power between the writer, speaker, performer, reader, listener, eavesdropper.

The trick is to accept with good grace the limits of one’s control. Say what we will with our words, with whatever articulate eloquence, we can never dictate how others will hear them or what others will do with them.

That is exactly as it should be.

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3 Responses to The perils of the written word

  1. Fenella Bennetts says:

    Very interesting!!! xxxx

  2. Pingback: Beating upon the cloud | Things Unrespected

  3. This is an interesting post for me to read because I’ve been interviewing for jobs recently, and all I can think about is how much better I’d be if I could do the whole thing in writing. If I could write instead of tell them why I’m a good hire, I’d feel so much more confident. I’d say what I actually mean instead of bumbling and “Ummmm…” ing through it. 🙂

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