Communicating via writing vs. in person

post by adamzerner · 2015-05-22T04:58:06.373Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 23 comments

There's a lot that I really like about communicating via writing. Communicating in person is sometimes frustrating for me, and communicating via writing addresses a lot of those frustrations:

1) I often want to make a point that depends on the other person knowing X. In person, if I always paused and did the following, it'd add a lot of friction to conversations: "Wait, do you know X? If yes, good, I'll continue. If no, let me think about how to explain it briefly. Or do you want me to explain it in more depth? Or do you want to try to proceed without knowing X and see how it goes?". But if I don't do so, then it risks miscommunication (because the other person may not have the dependency X).

In writing, I could just link to an article. If the other person doesn't have the dependency, they have options. They could try to proceed without knowing X and see how it goes. If it doesn't work out, they could come back and read the link. Or they could read the link right away. And in reading the link, they have their choice of how deeply they want to read. Ie. they could just skim if they want to.

Alternatively, if you don't have something to link to, you could add a footnote. I think that a UI like Medium's side comments is very preferable to putting the footnotes at the bottom of the page. I hope to see this adopted across the internet some time in the next 5 years or so.

2) I think that in general, being precise about what you're saying is actually quite difficult/time consuming*. For example, I don't really mean what I just said. I'm actually not sure how often that it's difficult/time consuming to be precise with what you're saying. And I'm not sure how often it's useful to be precise about what you're saying (or really, more precise...whatever that means...). I guess what I really mean is that it happens often enough where it's a problem. Or maybe just that for me, it happens enough where I find it to be a problem.

Anyway, I find that putting quotes around what I say is a nice way to mitigate this problem.

Ex. It's "in my nature" to be strategic.

The quotes show that the word inside them isn't precisely what I mean, but that it's close enough to what I mean that it should communicate the gist of it. I sense that this communication often happens through empathetic inference.

*I also find that I feel internal and external pressure to be consistent with what I say, even if I know I'm oversimplifying. This is a problem and has negatively effected me. I recently realized what a big problem it is, and will try very hard to address it (or really, I plan on trying very hard but I'm not sure blah blah blah blah blah...).

Note 1: I find internal conversation/thinking as well as interpersonal conversation to be "chaotic". (What follows is rant-y and not precisely what I believe. But being precise would take too long, and I sense that the rant-y tone helps to communicate without detracting from the conversation by being uncivil.) It seems that a lot of other people (much less so on LW) have more "organized" thinking patterns. I can't help but think that that's BS. Well, maybe they do, but I sense that they shouldn't. Reality is complicated. People seem to oversimplify things a lot, and to think in terms of black-white. When you do that, I could see how ones thoughts could be "organized". But when you really try to deal with the complexities of reality... I don't understand how you could simultaneously just go through life with organized thoughts.

Note 2: I sense that this post somewhat successfully communicates my internal thought process and how chaotic it could be. I'm curious how this compares to other people. I should note that I was diagnosed with a mild-moderate case of ADHD when I was younger. But that was largely based off of iffy reporting from my teachers. They didn't realize how much conscious thought motivated my actions. Ie. I often chose to do things that seem impulsive because I judged it to be worth it. But given that my mind is always racing so fast, and that I have a good amount of trouble deciding to pay attention to anything other than the most interesting thing to me, I'd guess that I do have ADHD to some extent. I'm hesitant to make that claim without ever having been inside someone else's mind before though (how incredibly incredibly cool would that be!!!) - appearances could be deceiving.

3) It's easier to model and traverse the structure of a conversation/argument when it's in writing. You could break things into nested sections (which isn't always a perfect way to model the structure, but is often satisfactory). In person, I find that it's often quite difficult for two people (let alone multiple people) to stay in sync with the structure of the conversation. The outcome of this is that people rarely veer away from extremely superficial conversations. Granted, I haven't had the chance to talk to many smart people in real life, and so I don't have much data on how deep a conversation between two smart people could get. My guess is that it could get a lot deeper than what I'm used to, but that it'd be pretty hard to make real progress on a difficult topic without outlining and diagramming things out. (Note: I don't mean "deep as in emotional", I mean "deep as in nodes in a graph")


There are also a lot of other things to say about communicating in writing vs. in person, including:

This is a discussion post, so feel free to comment on these things too (or anything else in the ballpark).

23 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Val · 2015-05-22T15:48:15.612Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Strangely, I like both writing and in-person communication about even the deepest and most personal topics, but I absolutely dislike telephone (voice only) communication for this purpose.

Actually, with people who I know well, I like the communication in person a little more, and for strangers I slightly prefer written communication over the personal one, but voice communication is an absolute turn-off for me.

I'm slightly introverted, but I can open easily, except when the communication is voice only. In that case I always feel lost, and the communication very quickly turns into awkward silences. There is one exception to this: when the communication is strictly technical in nature. In that case I don't have any problem even with an hour long phone call, if it remains purely technical. With friends and family, I'm only comfortable in using voice-only communication if it's about some factual information, like "I'll be there at 7:30". When answering "how are you?" in text or in person, I manage it quite well, but I have absolutely no idea how to continue such a conversation on the phone.

I guess it's because in person there are many channels of communication, and while in writing they are absent, they are compensated by having time to think. On the phone, there is just one channel, without time to think.

Does anyone else have similar experiences?

Replies from: Error, ChristianKl, adamzerner, bbleeker
comment by Error · 2015-05-22T22:27:49.470Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have the same set of preferences, although I think more strongly than you.

A long time ago I reached identical conclusions about why. I was in the process of composing the explanation in my head when your second-to-last paragraph echoed my thoughts back at me. That made me laugh.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-05-23T17:37:29.988Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does anyone else have similar experiences?

Yes, speaking on the telephone is the least pleasant for me. On the other hand it's a still that's trainable. I'm better at it than I was a year ago.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-05-22T16:10:06.911Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have a particular dislike for voice only as well, although not that strong. I find it a lot easier to judge when I should and shouldn't pause when there are nonverbal cues.

comment by bbleeker · 2015-05-22T21:38:13.260Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I feel much the same.

comment by Dustin · 2015-05-23T17:25:49.220Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On a related thought, I've idly mused on multiple occasions that live in-person political debates seem overweighted in importance.

I mean, there is an argument to be made along the lines of these types of debates showing candidates ability to think on their feet.

However, if I had to choose between live, in-person debates and a written format where candidates had plenty of time to formulate their thoughts and gather supporting evidence, I'd take the written format every time.

Replies from: adamzerner, Epictetus, ChristianKl
comment by adamzerner · 2015-05-23T18:01:12.581Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I too sense that a written format would be a better way of figuring out the truth when it comes to political stuff. But figuring out the truth does not seem to be the goal at all.

You may be interested in this clip from The Newsroom. They tried to change the way debates work by letting the moderator call candidates out for unfactual statements, not answering the question, interrupting etc.

comment by Epictetus · 2015-05-25T01:32:02.199Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A president or prime minister will be the public face of the nation. He'd be expected to meet with foreign dignitaries and speak in public. At the very least, a debate gives people an idea of how their leaders carry themselves when under stress in full public view.

However, if I had to choose between live, in-person debates and a written format where candidates had plenty of time to formulate their thoughts and gather supporting evidence, I'd take the written format every time.

Making prepared statements is usually done by a politician's staff. The candidate might make some suggestions and approve/reject a draft, but otherwise such a debate would be staffers vs. staffers.

I'll also note that once upon a time, people attended public debates in part for entertainment.

On a related thought, I've idly mused on multiple occasions that live in-person political debates seem overweighted in importance.

Overall I do agree. I seldom watch debates, because what the candidates do say is often just a condensed version of the party position that shows up on any one of a dozen websites.

Replies from: Dustin
comment by Dustin · 2015-05-25T15:50:18.803Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A president or prime minister will be the public face of the nation. He'd be expected to meet with foreign dignitaries and speak in public. At the very least, a debate gives people an idea of how their leaders carry themselves when under stress in full public view.

Yeah, that's the argument I was talking about when I said "there is an argument to be made...".

In fact, this is a silly hypothetical because we could have both verbal and written debates.

Making prepared statements is usually done by a politician's staff. The candidate might make some suggestions and approve/reject a draft, but otherwise such a debate would be staffers vs. staffers.

As it should be. Generally speaking, in the type of races I have in mind, politicians don't sit around hammering out policy ideas and details, they get all of that from their staff and other advisers. I feel like it's more important to know how good their team is, and less important to know how good they are at public debate.

My feeling is that like 70% of the value the public gets out of politicians is the quality of their team and how well the politician integrates with that team.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-05-24T00:29:22.047Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Before a debate the campaign of a candidate thinks about the possible questions that can be asked. Then they write talking points of how the candidate is supposed to answer the questions. The candidate memorizes those talking points and goes armed with them to the debate.

Regardles of the questions asked a good candidate sticks to his memorized talking points. If he forgets which governments departments "he" wants to eliminate he loses. If a questions comes up that isn't covered in his memorized talking points, no problem. Simply pick the talking point that's nearest to to topic of the question and run with it.

Having the questions written down wouldn't change much. It just removes the memory test that weeds out candidates who can't remember their own talking points.

The thing which would be important is to not let politicians get away with given statements of the record. Campaigns should answer all meaningful questions that journalists have on the record.

Replies from: Dustin
comment by Dustin · 2015-05-24T01:56:02.109Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My root comment on this subject was made in the context of the OP comparing verbal vs written conversation. To be clear, I don't disagree with your main point and in fact, I've made the same argument.

I do lean towards disagreement on the idea that it "wouldn't change much" (of course, defining that phrase is problematic), as it seems to me that a large part of "winners" and "losers" in debates is "mere" presentation and likability in that format and that these presentation and likability skills mean little towards the effectiveness of fulfilling their purported jobs. Reference the classic example of the Nixon/Kennedy televised debate (a quickly-googled link for a refresher).

In a written format presentation and likability are also important but candidates can have all the help they need with as much time as they need in a written format.

In all, though, I don't think we disagree much on this. I, too, would like more rigorous debate moderation and if I had to choose between written debates with current standards of debate moderation and verbal debates with rigorous moderation, I'd choose verbal debates with rigorous moderation.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2015-05-24T12:47:32.190Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In a written format presentation and likability are also important but candidates can have all the help they need with as much time as they need in a written format.

"Help they need" sounds like an euphemism. It might very well mean that the candidate isn't directly responsible for a single word.

Replies from: Dustin
comment by Dustin · 2015-05-24T16:15:29.498Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, that's exactly what I meant and what I would expect.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-05-22T13:22:40.832Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Real time conversations allow for real time feedback. It's possible to ask a lot more questions in real time conversations. Outside of questions you can still gauge the effect your words have on the other person via reading body language. That allows much better targeting.

In written communication miscommunication also frequently happens, but you usually don't have the feedback to know how the other person misunderstood you.

On the other hand written communication allows me to check my Evernote "external brain". It also allows to cite scientific studies in a way that's much harder than in face to face conversations.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-22T11:32:47.755Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I regularly work with people who are a bit overloaded and whatever I have to tell them usually means more work for them, at least in the sense of reading and email, thinking it over and replying with an opinion. One way they keep their workload saner is to plain simply not replying e-mails.

I noticed that if I put 5 people in the address, and start the email as "Dear All", the Bystander Effect ensures nobody will answer it.

Directed emails to one person are better. Putting their boss into CC works even better but I consider it a hostile, unfriendly move, I automatically dislike people who do this to me as it sounds like a veiled threat.

It is funny how I think I am an unusually introverted type and yet my see my supposedly more extroverted coworkers rather type 2 pages long email than to walk 10m and discuss it. I think the reason is responsibility. Suppose you are overloaded and cannot do a task that would take 10 hours, so you ask 20 questions which takes only 30 mins and send it in e-mail. To half the company. They will most likely ignore it and thus you have a good excuse. If the boss asks why is it not done you can shift the blame around. I think this is why they do it.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-22T12:22:51.795Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When we wrote letters to regional environment officials, we had two choices. One, to include the boss or not. Two, to mention it to the regional guy or not. We had 'reliable' and 'unreliable' adressees (and sometimes we even put the letters into wrong envelopes)...

comment by TrE · 2015-05-22T06:28:58.731Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for this post. I have made similar experiences, and feel much more dim-witted when speaking in person (especially compared to others).

comment by limes · 2015-05-24T03:54:15.710Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I often want to make a point that depends on the other person knowing X.

I can actually speak to the reverse of this. People, particularly in the rationalist / tech community, are constantly asking me if I know about extremely basic concepts. I attribute this to how I don't fit the stereotype of what a rationalist / tech person looks like. It's very frustrating to me to always get tailored versions of conversations that don't match my actual knowledge level. It might be fine if I could quickly answer, "Yes, I know what that is," to people's questions, but the problem is it seems that people simply avoid certain subjects all together or dumb it down so much it's unrecognizable. So, one of the reasons I enjoy online discussion is because I know I'm receiving what all the other site visitors are receiving.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-22T14:46:04.868Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most real life conversations don't require very much careful thought or continuity...

But good points about writing, maybe for really important conversations, it would actually be preferable for people to have them via writing even when talking in person would seem intuitive and better.

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2015-05-22T18:47:44.614Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most real life conversations don't require very much careful thought or continuity...

True. My overarching point was that "The following things make real-time communication difficult. Writing mitigates these difficulties". I should change this to be, "The following things make deep RTC difficult. Writing mitigates these difficulties."

But good points about writing, maybe for really important conversations, it would actually be preferable for people to have them via writing even when talking in person would seem intuitive and better.

I think that for "important" things, the goal is often to "take your time, think hard, and get the right answer". Writing does seem to usually be better for this, especially for technical things, but I think it depends a lot.

comment by Emily · 2015-05-22T09:23:24.316Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like writing as a communication medium too. I'm a slow thinker, and I'm even slower when a person is looking at me and waiting for me to finish the thought (or the conversation is simply moving on without my thought), so the non-real-time nature of written communication helps.

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2015-05-22T18:12:58.542Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hm, is being a slow thinker necessarily a problem for real time communication? The assumption seems to be that the other person has to wait for you to finish thinking, and that the other person doesn't want to do that. I think that that's usually true, but not always.

Personally, I (sometimes) like watching people think things through. They have to be able to communicate their thought process though. I particularly enjoy it if they're relatively smart/sensible (not necessarily fast). I sometimes enjoy watching irrational people think things through as well (from the perspective of cognitive psychology). It could also be fun if you think things through with the other person.

Replies from: Emily
comment by Emily · 2015-05-26T14:29:08.510Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure, there are conversations where it doesn't matter and can actually make for a good exchange.