Written vs. oral communication: Which is superior?

Illustration of a torn paper with one side showing a speaking female silhouette, and the other showing a phone with texts.
Armaan Mumtaz/Senior Staff

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Texting or calling: which reigns supreme? While there tends to be a generational divide in this long-held debate, the discussion itself reveals a greater question of whether oral or written communication is superior. 

Communication itself is naturally prevalent in everyday life, and it can be divided into two categories: spoken and written. The main distinction, however, is that the fleeting forms of oral communication cannot be altered once transmitted; written communication, on the other hand, has editing potential.

When I was interviewing for a copy editing position at The Daily Californian, I, of course, was asked, “Why do you want to be a copy editor?” While I had several answers to the question — “I have a superiority complex about knowing the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re,’” “I want to contribute to the credibility of the newspaper,” “I have a knack for the English language” — there was one thought that I couldn’t shake: If only I could go back and edit everything I just said.

The argument for written communication

You know when you’re lying in bed at night and have the time to reflect on that embarrassing thing you said five years ago? Or perhaps it’s when you come up with the perfect comeback to an argument — only, it’s three weeks too late. These problems could potentially be solved if every form of communication was written. 

I will admit, as a prospective English major, I am biased toward the written word. However, the idea that written communication has to be formal is a grave misconception. For example, let’s take a look at this great debate between texting and calling, the former of which is one of the more colloquial forms of communication used today.

A contributing factor toward the editing potential of written communication is that, unlike oral methods, it is typically asynchronous — a word that has much more relevance in our lives in this remote age. And, despite many claims that synchronous instruction is preferential, I know that, deep down, we all appreciate being able to procrastinate on our Zoom lectures, just as we sometimes like to take the time to put off and think about what to say in a text message.

On the topic of social media as a means of written communication, I’m going to pose another scenario. Given the recent Snapchat updates, the infamous “swipe method” — a technique in which one “half-swipes” on a text in an effort to read a message without the sender knowing — has become much more difficult to master. Now, there is a reason that people prefer to know what they’re replying to without being put on the spot: It allows for much more flexibility in crafting and editing the perfect response.

The argument for oral communication

While my bias remains intact, oral communication still has its merits. For one, its generally synchronous nature makes it convenient; it allows for initial confrontation and discussion. Even in the simplest scenarios, I think we can all agree that making plans through the written word — with less immediacy in responses — is exceptionally draining. 

The main proponent for oral communication seems to be that it is much easier to read tones, and there is often some form of body language in accompaniment. As multiple sketches throughout pop culture have recognized, more impersonal communication methods can become problematic. Even so, while these scenarios may be more accessible on a cursory level, modern techniques of written communication have their own supplementary tools in the forms of emoji, punctuation and capitalization. 

Another significant addition to oral communication’s caliber is that there is no record of what has been said. While this can potentially become troublesome, it also serves as an advantage; denial of past statements is always an option. Yet this potential desire for denial ultimately reveals a yearning for editing — except, instead of rewriting, our only option is to completely absolve ourselves of what has been said.

Each form of communication is, of course, extremely prevalent and intertwined in our everyday lives. However, whether the context is formal or informal, editing — which is only an option for the written word — maintains readability, preserves credibility and prevents those perpetual nights of lying in bed contemplating everything you have ever said.

Contact Stella Kotik at [email protected].