!! Email, Candor, and Writing as a Presentation of a Public Face

In her paper "Why Email Looks Like Speech," linguist Naomi Baron opens with this:

-> Email looks a lot like speech because writing in general has become more speech-like, thanks in part to conscious pedagogical decisions [schools and universities don't teach formal rhetoric] and in part to changing social attitudes about what is acceptable to present to others as representations of ourselves. But so what? Does it matter whether writing is formal or informal, edited or unedited, reflective or blurted out, reserved or candid?

As evidence, she points out "three attributes of email that characterize a significant proportion of the messages sent today (especially by more experienced users), spanning the spectra of age, gender, and education:"

* informality of language style
* psychological assumption that medium is ephemeral
* high level of candor (stemming, at least in part, from treating email as an ephemeral medium)

She also highlights some features that characterize email and differentiate it from other kinds of paper writing and from speech:

* Language Style - tends to be informal HOWEVER it's often even more informal than face to face speech
* Responses - fast response time assumed HOWEVER respondents often don’t get acknowledgement for assistance rendered
* Audience identity - intended for limited, specified audience HOWEVER email can be forwarded to others without original sender’s knowledge
* Durability - senders act as if email is ephemeral HOWEVER it can be printed out

And she mentions a couple of features of email that don't fit neatly into paper-based writing modes:

Candor
* email exhibits a high level of author candor (encouraged by perceived or actual anonymity) - a higher level than usually found in face-to-face speech and in much traditional writing.

Mixed Writing Modes
* although overall, the email frame is that of a memorandum, the body of message is sometimes constructed like a letter rather than a memo
* signature files often contain more information than normally found in letters, including not only phone and fax numbers but quotations or visual displays.

Drawing these features, Baron sees in email a shift in the idea of writing as a presentation of a public self. That is, print writing is seen and taught as not only communicating a message but doing so with attention to a public ethos (poise, politeness, correctness)l however, public ethos is attenuated in email exchanges. Immediate and unedited are the current watchwords of email.

-> Email, rather than being a linguistic anomaly, is 'an example par excellence of [a] growing attitude towards writing as a medium that doesn’t require attention to public face'. In fact, some of the self-appointed gurus of email style blatantly scoff at the idea that email should be subject to editing – either by sender or receiver:

* “Think blunt bursts and sentence fragments .... Spelling and punctuation are loose and playful. (No one reads email with red pen in hand.)” (p. 3)
* “Celebrate subjectivity.” (p. 9)
* “Write the way people talk. Don’t insist on `standard’ English.” (p.12)
* “Play with grammar and syntax. Appreciate unruliness.” (p. 15) (from Wired Style.)

And Baron concludes
-> Historians of English usage know that language communities go through normative and laissez-faire cycles, sometimes caring inordinately about such issues as dialect and prescriptive grammatical rules, other times reveling in the sheer inventiveness of a linguistically unconstrained citizenry. Of late, some literary critics have cautioned that contemporary patterns of education and technology may be altering our earlier relationship with the written word. Is email hastening the demise of traditional writing norms, especially in light of the galloping trend to shift from hard-copy writing (and reading) to electronically mediated communication? Perhaps like teenagers, we are going through an experimental phase that we will outgrow. Perhaps more normative (and contemplative) writing will return to fashion, in turn reshaping our notions of what email messages should look like. My best educated guess is that even if such a linguistic about-face does take place, it won’t happen any time soon. For now, too many people are enjoying their linguistic recess.

If you're interested, here's the pdf of Baron's paper
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