Voice communication is too low bandwidth for me

(… or, “Why I dislike using the phone so much“)

Those who know me know that I avoid the telephone whenever possible: I much prefer IM, email and other text-based communication methods. I bet people think I’m foolish; why would someone prefer to not use a phone, it’s so much faster than typing back and forth, plus you lose all that richness that comes with intonation and emotion that can be conveyed through voice? Someone so obsessed with efficiency like Dossy would obviously prefer the phone over text, right?


While you might have two ears, those ears aren’t independent: have you ever tried listening to multiple speakers simultaneously and follow what each of them are saying? It’s hard to do, for me at least. Audio communication is a synchronous, half-duplex, high-fidelity medium. In plain language, it means that while one person is speaking, the listeners should be listening. This is fine if you only have one conversation at a time. But, efficiency means parallelizing synchronous tasks.

Suppose for a moment that you could listen to multiple sources of audio simultaneously without any information loss. You still only have one mouth! If you’re going to speak, you can only say one thing at a time. If you’ve been in a situation where you’re speaking to several different people at a party simultaneously, you know how much this can slow down a conversation. You usually either break off from the group and have a series of quick one-on-one conversations, or you talk and listen to individual people in a round-robin fashion, or some other half-duplex synchronous strategy. It’s grossly inefficient.

But, you say, “typing is so slow!”

Sure, most people can’t touch type, but I’m not one of them. I type a solid 90-120 WPM. Of course, even half to a third that speed is sufficient for conversational typing which isn’t out of reach for the average typist. People refusing to learn how to type in this day and age are just dinosaurs: the current generation of youth will all likely be able to manage typing at 30-60 WPM.

If you think slow typing speed makes text chat a real chore, have you ever had to listen to a slow speaker? Or someone who mumbles or doesn’t enunciate well? That is just pure torture; I’d take a slow typist who makes lots of typos than have to sit through listening to a slow speaker who mumbles, any day.

You might argue, “fine, but what about the loss of information?”

I might have to concede here. You do lose a lot of information in text compared to audio: the intonation, the timing between words, the urgency in someone’s voice, the back-channel of emotions that subconsciously affect speech. A lot of that is lost when communication is limited to text. But, is this so bad? A lot of people use that extra information to manipulate the listener: a con is better perpetrated with a sad story told in tears; shouting can be used to intimidate others and bully them into complying. Frankly, in the exchange of ideas and knowledge, these bits are just distracting noise, masking the actual signal. I think losing them in text chat can sometimes be a benefit of the medium, not a limitation.

Frankly, the vocabulary of the average American is pathetic. It is so limited that in order to communicate, he will draw from his small pool of 300-400 words to try and get his idea across, rather than using a few choice words to succinctly and completely construct his message. This makes listening a slow and tedious process, and I’m notoriously impatient. Once I see where the speaker is going, I feel compelled to interrupt him to try and ease the pain. At least with store-and-forward text communication, the speaker can type at their own pace and I can read at mine, and respond without interrupting. It’s a full-duplex, asynchronous medium, unlike voice.

But what if I interrupt too soon? What if I actually misunderstood?

Sure, miscommunication happens. But, this isn’t limited to text chat–it happens in spoken conversation, too. However, with text, if I get the feeling I’ve misunderstood the other person, I can go back and re-read what they wrote verbatim as many times as I need to without interrupting them. With voice, I either have to use my imperfect short term memory to try and recall what was said and try to reinterpret it, or I have to interrupt the flow of dialog to ask for a clarification. It’s inefficient and error-prone. How could this be preferable?

I read a lot. I read and write code for a living. I read over 300 blogs in my aggregator. I probably spend 10-14 hours a day reading and writing text of various kinds. I can have 6-8 simultaneous IM conversations going on at any given time. I find that the more I read, the better I get at it: I read faster and I retain more information. Sometimes, when I’ve “misunderstood” a person, it’s because they were sloppy–they chose their words poorly–and I understood exactly what they said, but they didn’t say what they truly meant. Voice is ephemeral which likely encourages folks to be sloppy, but with text it’s possible to quickly scan what you just typed before you send it off to make sure it represents what you intended. When you’re used to being lazy with spoken language, the same laziness will likely carry over into your written language if you don’t write often enough. It is this laziness that has more often caused misunderstandings than my jumping to conclusions prematurely.

Okay, so this was a long-winded way of saying “the phone sucks.”

How did we go from “so clear, you could a pin drop” in the early 1990’s to “can you hear me now” and “the fewest dropped calls of any carrier” in the early 2000’s? Even if you want to still argue that the phone is superior to text chat and email, the telephone companies have already spoken with their business choices as to what direction things are going. I’m tired of suffering through the flaky, high-latency rubbish that’s being passed off as VoIP, today. It is absolute crap and we shouldn’t tolerate it any longer.

Fine, so what should we do about it?  Evolve, of course!

  • Learn to type. It’s the best investment of your time you can make right now, if you plan on living for the next 20 years or so. Typing is becoming more and more important as technology continues to improve.
  • Read more. Pick reading material that’s out side of your comfort zone. Deepen and enrich your vocabulary. Learn a new word or two every day.
  • Take pride in your ideas. Give them the care and attention they deserve. If you don’t think they’re worth the time, why would you expect me to spend mine on them?

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. I hope I’ve gotten you thinking about how you communicate and ways you can improve and do it better. Or, perhaps you think I’m a crackpot and you just need to give me a piece of your mind. Go ahead and leave me a comment. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

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  1. Here, here! I especially dislike voicemail. People who leave meandering messages instead of sending a succinct email annoy me.

  2. Hey Dossy,

    Were you writing this well thought out blog post while I was im’ing with you before?

    I thought you were paying attention only to me!


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