Have communication skills been upended by emoticons?

Early this month, I received a request from one of the leading educational institutes in India to provide my views and recommendations on the curriculum for an upcoming degree course. The intent was to get an industry practitioner’s point of view on a new course curriculum being planned. The course would be part of the curriculum for award of the degree in Data Science with AI/ML.

A close look at the curriculum showed that the core subjects had been mostly well represented. The conscious effort to address the industry’s demand was evident with a healthy blend of statistics, deploying models into applications, analysis, and visualization. A few gaps were discovered, addressed, and suggested for incorporation. The one aspect which caught my attention was the subject “Communication Skills for Managers” which was presented as a rushed after-thought.

A comprehensive course curriculum would cover topics that are core and contextual. Communication Skills (written and verbal) are something considered as contextual – essential, yet supplemental.

Recognizing its significance I believe, the participants should not “run the clock” but make serious efforts to imbibe this important skill.

But is it so? Is this more significant in today’s world characterized by short and snappy messages, fast food and emojis?

This defining statement from Dick Guindon, the famous American cartoonist, who passed away in Feb 2022, pithily answers the above question –

“Writing is nature’s way of letting you know how sloppy your thinking is.”

Today we live in a world with revised narratives. The ubiquitous and pervasive presence of social media in various forms has influenced our various needs.

Whether it is a busy street, the expansive shopping mall or the close confines of the elevator, the gravitational tug of the mobile phone makes most of us keep our heads down, fully absorb, feverishly tapping, or scrolling the screen.

This overwhelming influence of social media has silently morphed the written and spoken language.

Language has the innate ability to absorb. Thus, the way we express ourselves in daily communication, written or spoken has gotten mutated.

If we like something – “it is awesome”; if we have to exclaim – “it is insane”; the alphabet “d” now replaces the grammatical article “the”; “you’re” is casually mis-spelt as “your”; The lazy placement of the near appropriate emoticon is all comes as a response, and last but not the least, more often than not, non-contextualized message “forwards” floods our message boxes.

Much of the writing we do each day is on the messaging (aka texting) services we use. The need and expectation are to be mindlessly prompt in the response. The constraints imposed by the character limitations and the size of the screens, and the keyboard has forced us to make alterations or adjustments to our writing skills.

Is this a malignant disease that is eroding the quality of written and spoken communication?

Is this watering down the standards of spelling, grammar and punctuation which constitute the fundamentals of language?

Is it acceptable that emoticons and emojis slip into business communications?

One might get trained to pursue a career in technology, business, or scientific research, but if one aspires to be successful the need to communicate well (written and verbal) cannot be over-emphasized.

Writing well would mean that one is able to communicate clearly, but more importantly this is the only way to think through complex problems. Remember Guindon!

As we acknowledge the above exhortations, are social media vehicles aiding and abetting these skills?

Are they contributing to make us less capable to present our point of view where coherence and persuasiveness is needed?

Certainly, in today’s digital age with different formats, and with an access to a broader audience and freedom, people are writing more often. Yours truly included!

Complaints from teachers that “informal” writing is creeping into formal assignments is a fact.

Truncated forms of expressions through emoticons along with contracted forms with new-fangled acronyms have seen into formal communication. This seeming unwillingness to write in words while preferring short forms, could over a period lead to the degeneration of vocabulary and spelling. Time may come, when a grammatically correct text would evoke a mocking response!

Should we absorb and accept how written and spoken communication has influenced today’s world?

Language is a living thing, affected by the usage and hence would evolve. That is inevitable. However, should we allow communication to be stripped of its vitality and significance through truncation and contraction of rapid-fire messaging?

If communication skills set out to define our thinking abilities, will that get diluted? Remember Guindon!

Will the deliberate violation of grammatical conventions lead to genuine ignore of the rules (like missing of apostrophes) when sending text messages at a feverish pace?

Will we lose the communication skills, in the faucet of tumbling words and phrases depicting freewheeling emotions?

I do not want to sound as being afflicted by the “declinism bias” – the generalized view that everything is getting worse. However, the point is being made is while social media has encouraged more people to communicate, the “bad” habits from the informal communication of messaging on social media ought not to creep into the professional work environment (aka business, research, technology), where they do not belong.

Once the problem is identified, solution(s) can be put in place. The need to structure ideas, layout the plan and execution of the plan are among the key areas of focus in the professional world. This would arrest any slide in standards or plug any gaps and is done best through honing the formal communication skills.

Social media will continue to be a compelling part of our daily life. Its contribution in making businesses efficient is not to be denied. Trying to paint a picture of a malignant disease is not going to help, because it is here to stay.

We need to circumvent any of these deleterious effects through smart guidance.

So, “emoticons” can live as the emotions in the social media messages and not weasel into the rational world of professional communication. The case has been made; the choice is ours.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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