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Why is the written word more powerful than the spoken word?

October 4, 2008

When I was employed, there was an incident where a colleague of mine emailed to another colleague criticizing a member of senior management. The email somehow leaked and ended up in the inbox of the VP mentioned. In no time at all, the rest of senior management got a forwarded copy.

The email writer was summoned by the HR VP and asked to explain. An argument ensued. Later the management decided to take disciplinary action against the employee for writing the email.

The staff member, who by then had blown a fuse, took the opportunity at a staff meeting to let loose at the VPs and Ceo. Funny how some Singaporeans would speak in Mandarin when conducting normal business and revert to Hokkien when it descends into a fight. :mrgreen:

So we got to enjoy 4 letter words involving the senior management’s mothers if you know what I mean. And there were red faces, not for the issues he had with management but for the words used. He resigned immediately after.

Anyway, that wasn’t the interesting part. The interesting part was the fact that the staff’s grievance was nothing new. The VP in question was a well-disliked man and everyone talked about him openly. It had become a topic at department meetings and in meet-the-Ceo sessions. Management listened but seemed unwilling or unable to fix the problem.

What was clear was that management didn’t take the grumblings seriously until the email surfaced, albeit as private chatter between two co-workers. Because the “love” was now expressed in printable form, management decided that disciplinary action had to be taken.

The moral of the story: For us, the written word is grossly more offensive than its spoken equivalent, never mind if they are exactly the same words conveying exactly the same meaning.

By the same token I imagine saying “I love you” in person won’t be taken as seriously as emailing it or writing it down on paper so if you are in a serious relationship, you don’t talk. You exchange little post-it notes over the dinner table or you send smses. So write it down, people.

But seriously, would anyone care to explain why we put more faith in the written word than the spoken word? What does putting it in writing really change? More importantly what do you suppose it says about us?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. LC Teh permalink
    October 4, 2008 3:33 pm

    Ever been told you need to have your commitments in blank & white? That’s exactly why. And it’s not funny. Because they can show it as a document in court in case you decided to change your mind. Same thing goes with 4 letter words.

    And about 4 letter words; in native lingo it has more stink (and sting).

    As for ‘I love you’; written on solid material, it lasts and is cherished forever even long after the real thing has faded or traded for others. If you become a famous name, it even has great trading (auction) value.

    That’s precisely my point when I said what does this say about us. When people must speak with the court in mind, it only confirms how litiguous we as a society have become. Can you imagine having every statement kept on record and used against you whenever someone can gain a benefit from it. There’s also a corporate disease called management by memo where nothing moves unless there’s a written memo from someone. Its just to cover everyone’s ass. Companies like this tend to suffer the lowest morale.

    Yes, I know some ‘praises’ in Hokkien doesn’t sound as heavenly when said in Mandarin. Same with Cantonese.

  2. October 4, 2008 6:04 pm

    Maybe it’s because it’s easier to forgive something that is blurted out and transitory. A written comment is something that is has more permanence (relatively) and can be objectively looked at later by people not at the scene (rather than relying on the faulty observations of the spectators).

    Look at the commotion caused by the blogger on her alleged comments on a certain race in Malaysiakini. If it were spoken, I doubt anyone would have batted an eyelid. But in written form, it’s another matter altogether.

    Hmm… I used to think its easier for people to forgive than to forget. Notice how easily people forgive when you give them money (thru litigation) even if the thing that upset them remains on public record like the newpaper archives.

    I’d pose one question: Would a compassionate society have any need for litigation or be interested to keep records on people’s statements for punitive action?

  3. LC Teh permalink
    October 5, 2008 3:14 pm

    Years ago when we had this new chief who started something we thought was new. He encouraged employees to write to him using his personal letter-box (other than he, only his secretary had the key). I wrote him only once, and that was because of a never-ending dispute about wearing a smock over over our uniforms which made me sweat on warm days. The dispute ended.

    Later I heard him tell other middle management folks that I wrote to him often!!! I’ve never written to him ever since and I doubt if anyone else ever did either.

    So much for the written word; a double-edged knife. Use it carefully…

    Sounds like he wanted to make himself look important. Well at least he actually fixed the problem. I’ve filled out many feedback forms in writing at Pizza Hut and Tesco but clearly no one is listening.

  4. Mark permalink
    December 7, 2008 9:08 pm

    Your conclusion is false, completely so.

    The only reason why the complaints when written down in an email were taken seriously is because there was physical proof. Its hard to prove who was talking to who about what.

    The written word will NEVER be as powerful as the spoken word, there is too much lost in the translation of the two. The two are inextricably linked, l’ll accept that.

    Also, if you believe the words ‘I love you’ are more powerful than the spoken ‘I love you’ then you are a deluded my friend. Both contain sentiment, but you cant express with lines what you can with sound.

    “The only reason why the complaints when written down in an email were taken seriously is because there was physical proof. ” Exactly. 🙂

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