How many times have you had a reasonable, clear and seemingly conclusive discussion with a colleague who closed the conversation by asking: "Would you send me a memo on that, please?"
This isn't only irritating and an enormous waste of time. It also reflects an unfortunate bias in modern organizations toward overvaluing literacy, underplaying verbal contracts and the simple honesty they require, and creating layers and layers of meddlesome paper-pushers.
In doing anthropological research over the past few years on the relationship between human behavior and the industrial economy, I found that many of the conventions that have evolved in modern society are at odds with our natural skills and instincts. The assumption of universal literacy, which coincided with the emergence of the industrial system, is a case in point.
Simply put, modern organizations generally rely too heavily on reading and writing. It would be easier and less expensive in many cases for executives to simply talk things out. Moreover, at companies where the memo is king, responsibility for management decisions is blurred, raising nettlesome ethical issues.
Let's begin at the beginning. Human beings evolved over the past millions of years in an oral environment. Hunters and gatherers had to, and still can, communicate surprisingly complicated and subtle information without writing.
When writing emerged, it seems to have been associated with the convulsive transition to agriculture and pastoralism--a period during which many of our still-dominant ethical systems arose. Reading and writing were mainly for priests, associated with power and the magic of written authority.
Only an estimated 106 of the thousands of human societies known to exist today have real literature. Literacy is unusual, even abnormal, and questionable even for many in the Western world. Hence, national literacy month.
An infant, once able to walk, will approach the TV set, turn it on and watch it daily and extensively for 75 years. But to teach a child to read, an industry of teachers, worried parents, pop-up books, Sesame Street, dyslexia experts and the like must be mobilized.
Nevertheless, few people read very much. The circulation of a major best-seller would be too small to allow any network television show to avoid the ax. The evidence seems indisputable that reading and writing form a technology of communication that is difficult to learn. It also may be difficult to accomplish well, if the complaints of countless teachers, parents and employers are to be taken at face value.
Yet this is the scheme of communication that, by and large, we use to operate our planet and all the organizations on it.
I would not for a moment suggest either that we have a choice about all of this, or that the literate mode does not possess indisputable capacities for storing, codifying and communicating information and opinion with superb effectiveness and clarity. It is a fine means to an end. But has it become itself the end? Would everyone be better off if they simply talked to people about what they had to say?
Creating a formal code of literacy for accomplishing work has given rise to specialized business jargon. Formality and complexity in business communication has replaced plain speaking.
One bizarre consequence is that when the masters of the systems, the chief executives, want to communicate with the public, they are widely unable or unwilling to do so unless they have specialists called speech writers. The same applies to politicians, perhaps another reflection of a general decline in the personality and authenticity of human communication.
It is ironic that Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware was--correctly--rebuffed for using the words of another politician. However, they may simply have been the words of another politician's speech writer, not his own. Which is the greater dishonesty--to swipe a speech writer's words or to use a speech writer altogether? The fact is virtually all politicians plagiarize speech writers. They just pay them.
The advantages of plain speaking are clear when you watch an executive such as Gabriel Paes de Carvalho, who ran the construction company that built the spectacular Itaipu Dam in Brazil, the world's largest hydroelectric project. His working style invites participatory management. Employees swarm around de Carvalho and he hovers around them, spurring one conversation after another about the job at hand.
"I write about six business letters a year," he says. "When there's a problem, I go." A bit informal, perhaps. But de Carvalho boasts of wrapping up the seven years of construction on his project within six months of the originally stipulated completion date and within 6% of its projected $18-billion cost, a minor miracle in this era of cost overruns.