Western culture has a secret: there is much in the world that simply doesn’t translate well into written form. Yet we have no shortage of examples (particularly in the voluntary and care sectors) which still attempt to take something impossibly nuanced and complex, and turn it into a static document. Are we telling ourselves a massive lie by pretending such writing is effective communication? And what can we learn from cultures less dependent on text for sharing ideas?
I’ve been helping a friend proof a document he’s written. The document is 18 pages on good relationships between people and organisations. He does it much better than most would. But I’m still left with a strong sense of something having been lost in the process. Can a good relationship be captured on a piece of paper in the first place? Or, like a range of other human experiences, does it need to be ‘learned by doing’, or at least through a more holistic communication of the ideas involved?
What shouldn’t we write as much about?
Relationships are one example of ‘things we don’t do justice via the written word’, but there are many more we continue to confine to a format totally inappropriate to their characteristics… like the difference between writing about happiness, describing happiness in conversation, and being happy yourself; much gets lost in the translation from one-to-the-other. In frontline service organisations, the examples of this can be almost farcical, if they weren’t also so tragic… self-care guides for social workers, for example, cannot begin to make sense of days-on-end spent working with people in their worst moments of crisis, who often hate you by default. The invariable oversimplification of complex issues, the inability to know how emotionally-equipped different social workers are for the stresses of the job, and how different people will respond to those stresses, often make these kinds of guides and policies interesting pieces of theory, with little real world application. Something other than a document is needed to serve this crucial function, for example, on site counselling services that can address all of these differences, as required.
A few criteria for thinking about complex concepts or ideas that might not be best conveyed in writing:
- Emotion – even our best poets can rarely capture a feeling in terms that can resemble the experience itself. Yet emotion is central to humanity, and a key piece of any people-centred service or organisation, so we need other ways of conveying it.
- Nuance – two seemingly contradictory ideas can often both be true. Especially when it comes to individual perception. A programme can be legitimately life-changing and devastating to two of its recipients, depending on their expectations and needs. Writing doesn’t often capture non-binaries especially well.
- Change – like our relationships, people are always changing, thus something written may be quickly made irrelevant by a new revelation or an unexpected influence. Unlike speech, text is static and doesn’t adapt nearly as freely to subtle shifts. However the conversational web is starting to allow greater versatility to published words.
There are alternatives!
Western culture has kept the imperfection of written words secret for so long, in part by not talking about other cultures that don’t subscribe to it.
Most first nations communities in North America, (one of which I had the pleasure of working quite closely with this summer), share their cultures, values, lessons and histories orally, to this day. Storytelling culture has been dismissed by Westerners since initial contact with indigenous peoples in the early colonial period. It’s imprecise, it’s subjective, it changes, it is easily lost… all legitimate critiques, but none of which acknowledge what it does do, that perhaps a written culture lacks… if oral histories can capture the feelings of an experience, at the expense of detailed fact, is that necessarily a loss for those receiving them? We assume when it happens the other way around (feelings or deeper experiential understanding lost for factual accuracy) that this is okay… and even beneficial to western objectivism. But what have we really learned then? More facts, but with nothing to ground them in our lived experience of the world…
What works better when we say it, than when we write it?
For several years I’ve had a strong bias towards interactive, facilitated learning and communications methods. (Blogging, with its ongoing opportunity for commentary and discussion, is the closest thing I’ve found in the written world so far.) I like to facilitate, but I also find that I pick-up ideas and understanding more effectively when I’m in a discussion, than when I’m reading.
We tell ourselves that we ‘know’ something once we’ve read about it, but do we? Can we really understand deep, emotional, experiential concepts, simply by ingesting a series of symbols on a page or screen? For decades countless studies have told us that at least 90% of person-to-person communication is non-verbal – it’s not in the words we say, but how we say them, what our body language and facial expressions are conveying, etc. Thus the well-known shortcomings of trying to address complex problems – or even tell a subtle joke – over email or text message. When we relegate ourselves to text, we are hampering 90% of our ability to convey our message to others.
Which can be fine for some things (shopping lists, for example), but can be nothing short of devastating with more sensitive, nuanced, or emotive subjects.
When an indigenous elder tells a story of their community’s history after a peace pipe ceremony, the point of the story is not simply to convey the facts (these are often adapted to make sense in different times and contexts) but to convey the feelings, sentiments, lessons and values that have been core to that community for many generations. When you experience this kind of storytelling for the first time, it’s hard to understand why we have come to rely so absolutely on text books to pass-along our histories; it’s immediately clear that there is so much the text books are leaving out! Sometimes some of the most important lessons we could be taking from our pasts!
For me, hearing about the Canadian residential school experience this summer, from a range of people who had been forced into them at a young age, gave me an understanding of both the hideous reality of that Canadian experience, as well as of the current dynamics between indigenous and settler cultures in Canada. Nothing I read in school growing up in Toronto had given me that understanding. Nothing even came close to it…
Why writing doesn’t always do what it says it will…
I’ve noticed a few things that seem to limit the possibilities of written communication and learning:
- Inability to filter complex information, based on context – A book or a policy document can’t adapt itself to suit all possible scenarios or readers, and to include information to address all possible scenarios or readers is an impossible task. A person with a breadth of knowledge on a subject can (and does) make judgments as to the importance of sharing different information, in different situations, with different people (like the adaptive nature of indigenous oral histories).
- Static nature of text – Once it’s there, it’s there, though the online world – wikis as a prime example – are shifting this into less-absolute terms (and offer amazing opportunities). Still, a written document mostly exists as a snapshot of thinking and knowledge of a particular moment in time, from a particular perspective.
- Lacks 90% of human communication – Without intonation, expression and body language, it is practically impossible to meaningfully capture some of the critical factors involved in complex dynamics (as those listed previously)….
But we keep writing; policy documents, training guides, text books… (blogs like this, even?) all with the hope that these static reams of paper will help others learn things that they didn’t know before about complex, ever-changing scenarios and ideas.
So should we draw a line?
Should we say that if you’re training a new staff member at a social care organisation in working with patient who has recently begun suffering serious memory loss (for a particularly sensitive, but non-life threatening example), ‘good practice’ might be better learned via talking with other staff and watching them in action – even with particular different patients – rather than reading about it in a guide?
I’ve commented before on ‘relationship policies’ at workplaces (‘you cannot be in a personal relationship with someone else who works for the organisation’) as one of the worst examples of trying to codify a highly-nuanced emotional issue, into a standard document. Some relationships will get messy and create workplace problems, many will not, but attempts to legislate against them will only breed resentment and deceit. Address the individual issue, as is needed, with the individuals involved, rather than trying to create a template applicable to all workplace relationships. Save the paper.
I suggest keeping the three bullet points at the top in mind (emotion, nuance, change) when deciding whether or not another document is needed in your organisation. While writing can be seen as a shortcut to sharing necessary information with a large number of people, we should be clear about what kinds of information it can and can’t be effective at disseminating. Are we creating a false economy by not investing the initial time and effort into having more individual conversations about subjects that won’t get across effectively through generic text? Is the large scale of mass written communication in itself a false economy, with our efforts better spent mobilising a smaller number of people though more individual means, than a large number more generically? (That’s a blog in its own right… and it’s half written… stay tuned!)