Perhaps the pen is mightier than the voice

I was intrigued by some research I spotted recently which seems to prove that the pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword. Well, it’s mightier than the spoken word, anyway.

The research suggested that there’s a specific reason why arguments on Facebook so often degenerate to slagging matches. It’s the same issue lawyers run into when discussions are are reduced to letter-exchanges. All that usually happens is that the letters get tetchier and tetchier, and finally the issue goes to court.

What happens, it seems, is that points made in written form are often taken much more seriously by the recipient than the same content presented verbally.

To me this stands to reason; spoken words sweep past and are gone, or can be immediately countered with something else. When we speak, we also obtain the essence of the meaning even if the wording’s loose, in part because of the context of tone, body language and the other unspoken ways in which we communicate.

Written words simply don’t have that ‘meta-data’ with them and it’s too easy to misinterpret them. Or somebody wanting to point-score can deliberately choose to misinterpret or nit-pick meanings in ways that wouldn’t work in a verbal interchange.

One of the key issues, it seems to me, is to do with the way we are conditioned to think, in particular to look for single-point ‘facts’ as answers, often in relation to quite complex questions that – in fact – cannot be answered that way. Some people even define reality purely as what they believe to be ‘fact’.

In a forum such as a Facebook comment thread, it simply isn’t possible to easily expound the relatively nuanced arguments that form the actual answer to some of the questions asked and debated. Simply quick-firing points off instead, which is what a lot of comment threads amount to, merely serves to provoke because it can present to the other party as a flat challenge to their own views.

If those views happen to also coincide with the world-view around which that person validates themselves and their sense of place and self-worth, then all sorts of trouble must follow.

And sometimes, as I’ve been noticing particularly in the past week, some people simply don’t even have the conceptual tools to understand something – the Dunning Kruger effect triumphs.

I can’t see an answer to this just now. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

5 thoughts on “Perhaps the pen is mightier than the voice

  1. Another factor is that when writing something, you can look at what you’ve written, think about it, and edit it, all before anyone else sees any of it. So I think that some people subconsciously assume that words that were written had more thought put into them than words that were spoken, despite all the evidence against the idea of this being the case on Facebook or Twitter.


    1. Yes, absolutely. I think many social media comments are simply dashed off and then forgotten, at least until somebody becomes enraged by then. Actually, on my experience, even carefully considered wording can still lead to misunderstanding, in any writing – the author knows what they think, and if there’s an editor involved, the editor may also have an understanding. Is that shared by readers? Maybe not. I’ve had that happen to me a number of times over the years with my books – all of which go through a very cautious and careful writing process and are then independently read by the publisher.


  2. On the topic of facebook and people not conceptually understanding things, I TOTALLY get that. Facebook usually suggests popular articles or videos in the newsfeed and I see people making comments every day on things that they normally wouldn’t comment on because they don’t really understand it. It’s shocking how a 60 second video makes people feel like they have studied a subject for years. Of course, I’m tempted to project my opinion to the world as well, but I try to log off before I get too crazy 🙂


    1. Too true about people spouting off on topics they know little about! I’ve seen arguments of this kind, where a Facebook group commenter treats everybody else as an idiot; whereas their own knowledge is patently minimal. There was one group I briefly belonged to where somebody tried that on me, in a field where I have thirty years professional experience and my work’s been internationally recognised. I didn’t bother arguing the point; the guy basically said that anything I said was worthless, including anything to the contrary, so he wasn’t going to accept anything I said anyway. Would he have done that face-to-face, as opposed to the safety of a Facebook comment thread in which he was an admin? I doubt it – he couldn’t even use his real name online. Sigh…

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  3. Blogs! lol Sorry. Even before I deleted my FB account I rarely used it so can’t speak to the point scoring, but I do enjoy the cut and thrust of Twitter, so I’m not sure the lack of space is really the problem. Maybe there’s more a culture of tribalism on FB – i.e. people want to make instant connections. Don’t know, but for real communication I’ll go a blog every time.

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