4.2 Spoken and Written Communication

While both spoken and written communication function as agreed-upon, rule-governed systems of symbols used to convey meaning, there are enough differences in pragmatic rules between writing and speaking to justify discussing some of their differences. Imagine for a moment that you’re a college student who desperately needs money. Rather than looking for a job, you decide that you’re going to ask your parents for the money you need to make it through the end of the semester. Now, you have a few choices for using verbal communication to do this. You might choose to call your parents or talk to them in person. You may take a different approach and write them a letter or send them an email. You can probably identify your own list of pros and cons for each of these approaches. But really, what’s the difference between writing and talking in these situations? Let’s look at four of the major differences between the two: (1) formal versus informal, (2) synchronous versus asynchronous, (3) recorded versus unrecorded, and (4) private versus open.

Venn diagram illustrating written and spoken communication differences and similarities
Image by H. Rayl is licensed under CC BY 4.0

The first difference between spoken and written communication is that we generally use spoken communication informally, while we use written communication formally. Consider how you have been trained to talk versus how you have been trained to write. Have you ever turned in a paper to a professor that sounds like how you talk? How was that paper graded compared to one that follows the more formal structures and rules of the English language? In Western societies like the US, we follow more formal standards for our written communication than we do for our spoken communication. With a few exceptions, we generally tolerate verbal mistakes (e.g., should of rather than should have) and qualifiers (e.g., uh, um, you know, etc.) in our speech, but not our writing.

Consider a written statement such as “I should of, um, gone and done somethin’ ‘bout it, but, um, I I didn’t do nothin’.” In most written contexts, this is considered unacceptable written verbal communication. However, most of us would not give much thought to hearing this statement spoken aloud by someone. While we may certainly notice mistakes in another’s speech, we are generally not inclined to correct those mistakes as we would in written contexts. Even though many of us try to speak without qualifiers and verbal mistakes, there is some value added by those utterances in our speech while engaging in an interpersonal conversation. According to John Du Bois, the way two people use utterances and structure their sentences during conversation creates an opportunity to find new meaning within the language and develop parallelism, which can lead to a natural feeling of liking or sympathy in the conversation partner. So even though it may seem like formal language is valued over informal, this informal language that most of us use when we speak inadvertently contributes to bringing people closer together.

While writing is generally more formal and speech more informal, there are some exceptions to the rule, especially with the growing popularity of new technologies. For the first time in history, we are now seeing exceptions in our uses of speech and writing. Using text messaging and email, people are engaging in forms of writing using more informal rule structures, making their writing sound more like conversation. Likewise, this style of writing often attempts to incorporate the use of nonverbal communication (such as emojis) to accent the writing.

The second difference between spoken and written forms of verbal communication is that spoken communication or speech is almost entirely synchronous, while written communication is almost entirely asynchronous. Synchronous communication is communication that takes place in real time, such as a conversation with a friend. When we are in conversation, and even in public speaking situations, immediate feedback and response from the receiver is the rule. For instance, when you say hello to someone, you expect that the person will respond immediately. You do not expect that the person will get back to you sometime later in response to your greeting.

In contrast, asynchronous communication is communication that is not immediate and occurs over longer periods of time, such as letters, email, or even text messages at times. When someone writes a book, letter, email, or text, there is no expectation from the sender that the receiver will provide an immediate response. Instead, the expectation is that the receiver will receive the message and respond to it when they have time. This is one of the reasons people sometimes choose to send an email instead of calling another person because it allows the receiver to respond when they have time rather than putting them on the spot to respond right away.

Just as new technologies are changing the rules of formality and informality, they are also creating new situations that break the norms of written communication as asynchronous and spoken communication as synchronous. Voicemail has turned the telephone into an asynchronous form of communication. We understand that if we leave a message on voicemail, we will not get an immediate reply. Instead, we understand that the receiver will call us back at their convenience. In this example, even though the channel of communication is speaking, there is no expectation for an immediate response to the sent message. Similarly, texting is a form of written communication that follows the rules of spoken conversation in that it functions as synchronous communication. When you type a text to someone you know, the expectation is that they will respond almost immediately. The lines continued to blur when video chats were introduced as communication technologies.

FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, and others are forms of synchronous communication that mimic face-to-face interaction and, in some cases, even include an option to simultaneously send written messages to others. The possible back-and-forth between written and spoken communication has allowed many questions to arise about the rules and meaning behind interactions. Maria Sindoni explains in her article “Through the Looking Glass” that even though people are having a synchronous conversation and are sharing meaning through their words, they are ultimately in different rooms and communicating through a machine that makes the meaning of their exchanges more ambiguous.

The third difference between spoken and written communication is that written communication is generally archived and recorded for later retrieval, while spoken communication is generally not recorded. When we talk with friends, we do not tend to take notes or tape-record our conversations. Instead, conversations tend to be ongoing and cataloged into our personal memories rather than recorded in an easily retrievable written format. On the other hand, it is quite easy to reference written works such as books, journals, magazines, newspapers, and electronic sources such as web pages and emails for long periods after the sender has written them. Platforms like TikTok add to the confusion. This app allows users to record themselves and post to their profiles. This would be considered a form of spoken communication, yet it is archived and asynchronous so others can look at the videos years after the original posting. To make the matter more complicated, Snapchat’s many functions come into play. On Snapchat, you have the option of sending videos or photos that are traditionally not archived, since the sender decides how long the receiver has to view them, and then they will theoretically disappear forever. With the addition of the Story feature on several social media platforms, users of these apps can post a picture for 24 hours and have their friends view it multiple times before it disappears. The feeling of technological communication not being archived can lead to a false sense of privacy, which can lead to some negative consequences.

As with the previous rules we’ve discussed, new technologies are changing many of the dynamics of speech and writing. For example, many people use email and texting informally like spoken conversation, as an informal form of verbal communication. Because of this, they often expect that these operate and function like spoken conversation with the belief that it is a private conversation between the sender and receiver. However, some people have gotten into trouble because of what they have communicated about others through email and text. The corporation Epson (a large computer electronics manufacturer) was at the center of one of the first lawsuits regarding the recording and archiving of employees’ use of email correspondence.

Employees at Epson assumed their email was private and therefore used it to say negative things about their bosses. What they didn’t know was their bosses were saving and printing these email messages and using the content of these messages to make personnel decisions. When employees sued Epson, the courts ruled in favor of the corporation, stating that they had every right to retain employee email for their records.

While most of us have become accustomed to using technologies such as texting and instant messaging in ways that are similar to our spoken conversations, we must also consider the repercussions of using communication technologies in this fashion because they are often archived and not private. We can see examples of negative outcomes from archived messages in recent years through many highly publicized sexting scandals. One pertinent incident involved former congressman and former candidate for mayor of New York Anthony Weiner, who made a series of inappropriate exchanges with women using communication technologies. Because of his position in power and high media coverage, and given that he had these conversations in a setting that is recorded, Weiner was not able to keep his anonymity or confidentiality in the matter. These acts were seen as inappropriate by the public, so there were both professional and personal repercussions for the involved parties. Both the Epson and Anthony Weiner incidents, even though happening in different decades, show the consequences when assumed private information becomes public.

As you can see, there are a number of differences between spoken and written forms of verbal communication. Both forms are rule governed, as our definition points out, but the rules are often different for the use of these two types of verbal communication. However, it’s apparent that as new technologies provide more ways for us to communicate, many of our traditional rules for using both speech and writing will continue to blur as we try to determine the most appropriate uses of these new communication technologies. Practical problems of the day will continue to guide the directions our field takes as we continue to study the ways technology changes our communication. As more changes continue to occur in the ways we communicate with one another, more avenues of study will continue to open for those interested in being part of the development of how communication is conducted. Now that we have looked in detail at our definition of verbal communication and the differences between spoken and written forms of verbal communication, let’s explore what our use of verbal communication accomplishes for us as humans.


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Fundamentals of Communication Copyright © 2022 by LOUIS: The Louisiana Library Network is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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