The Limitations of Technological Shortcuts, According to Deborah Tannen

Deborah Tannen Linguistics

Recently, Linguistics professor at Georgetown Deborah Tannen spoke the Aspen summit, and we found her comments interesting and relevant to current culture enough that we had to share them:

“We are now doing in writing things that would have previously been talking. Decisions that used to be made in conversation are now being made in email. And they’re going to be worse decisions.

“In my department, it used to be once per term we got together and talked about what we were going to teach the following term. And in the process we’d talk about the students, how they’re doing, whose doing what, all kinds of things would come up. But my colleagues now try to do that by email: An email comes in, ‘What do you want to teach next term?’ I don’t know. I’ve got to know what you want to teach, how badly you wanna teach it. If I teach this, is that going to be a problem for the students?

“I’m constantly demanding we don’t do this by email, lets meet. At first it feels like you’re really imposing on people’s time. We’re all turning down so many things that time is REALLY valuable now, and we’re telling people come in and take this time, but I truly believe that good decisions cannot be made by email. Tempers are more likely to flair, people will dash things off before realizing who’s listening, not to mention what’s down the email scroll that you don’t want other people to see, and even written language is suffering.

“It used to be, with writing op-eds, the editor would call and you’d go through the article piece by piece and edit it voice to voice. So if there was something the editor thought should change, they would tell me why they wanted it to change, and I would say ‘Well, this is the reason I want it this way,’ and we’d negotiate and come out with something that they were happy with and I was happy with. Now what I get is a red line of what I wrote, in which they’re MAKING THE CHANGES, which makes me crazy because I put those words there because those are the words I want, and they’ve changed it, and I almost lose my ear about how it should change. And I don’t know why they changed it, so I don’t know exactly how to fix it to fix what they thought was the problem and still keep what I wanted. It’s impossible that what you’re now seeing in print is as good as it would be if there had been a conversation rather than an email.”

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