On the floor of the Senate, surrounded by elected officials and important dignitaries, an eccentric inventor started texting.
On May 24, 1844, with a crude electrical wire strung from D.C. to Baltimore, Samuel Morse transmitted the first telegraph, forever transforming the world. Reflecting on the divine providence of this technological leap forward, Morse tapped out a message of dashes and dots that read, “what hath God wrought?”
Now Kelly texts Becky, “OMG! Look at her butt!” and businessmen email, “see attached,” squandering our great inheritance with an incessant electroshock torture of the English language. But if communication makes man human, then these sloppy messages do more than just foster sloppy thought. They dehumanize us.
Everyday in every office, drones send and receive millions of emails. According to research by the McKinsey Global Institute, the average white-collar American worker spends almost 28 percent of the workweek on email alone.
That’s 13 hours of chugging through messages about following up to touch base about squaring circles to bring everyone into the loop about a synergized idea that’s ultimately a non-starter.
Stringing together these sweet corporate nothings doesn’t just jumble a message. It changes meaning.
The email author loses control when he surrenders precision of diction for the ambiguity of clichés. Business professionals descend to the intellectual capacity of chimpanzees selecting random phrases and keywords they recognize. The only thing worse than these obnoxiously opaque emails: The emotionless imperative.
Too often curt and cold replies pass through our inboxes: “Finish by close of business,” “good enough,” “follow up when finished,” etc. ad nauseam. Without context, these one-liners force the recipient to infer, to fill in the missing context that a lazy author left out.
Of course deadlines dictate rapid-fire responses and streamlined communication. But these exceptions often become blanket excuses for blatant discourtesy.
During the height of the Second World War, even when barbarism threatened civilization, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt kept up a charming correspondence while discussing grand strategy.
But it’s cool. Like, your job’s really stressful and the modern workplace moves so fast that you don’t have time for that. You do you. Let everyone else worry about piecing together what your half-digested dribble really means. Or maybe you could act like a decent human being.
Not every email needs to paint a little masterpiece but they all should be clear, concise, and at very least, polite.
It’s outside the office, however, where the real verbal abuse takes place. Even less formal than email, text messaging has become the most prominent vehicle for linguistic manure. A 2013 study by Experian Marketing Group estimates that the average millennial sends a little more than 2,000 texts a month, or about 67 messages a day.
With just two thumbs and a QWERTY keyboard, this generation has bashed in the jaw of the English language. Mainstays like grammar, proper syntax, and punctuation no longer apply. Instead it’s fast and loose and ugly.
An undignified dictionary of acronyms and emoticons has tried to fill the void. To give emotion to our dribble, we prostitute parentheses, dashes, and semi-colons into an unholy matrimony that produces stillborn, sideways smilies.
Sure. Sometimes it’s necessary to send a quick text conveying important information. Texting is an amazing invention that even the Luddite would find useful. But it’s a sad world when texting replaces true conversation, and too often the convenient crowds out the communicative.
Had Romeo and Juliet swooned over text rather than under windows, Billy Shakespeare wouldn’t have had Juliet call out, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Instead, she’d type, “Romeo?! um, hello Romeo? Where u @…?”
This abysmal state of language in email and texts isn’t a moral oversight. It’s a moral crisis.
Writing inherently employs the intrinsically human faculties of speech and reason. Technologies like email and texting can serve as modern catalysts for timeless communication, elevating the human condition by knitting individuals together in community. But the inverse also is true.
Texts and emails can bankroll bankrupt ideas and poor practices. Only now, the human collateral is exponentially greater in proportion to technology’s ability to overcome space and time.
Looking back, will our children read through our love letters and discover our professional triumphs? Or will they sift through garbled texts and impersonal emails in desperate search of some greater meaning?
Every time we press send, we decide what God hath wrought, we influence whether advances in communication amount to a blessing or a curse. Emails and texts can elevate our language and humanity, or they can turn us into sentient beasts beating on keyboards and talking past one another. The choice is ours to make.