I often prefer communication via text to chatting in person, on the phone, or via a video call. Let's call this latter grouping "oral communication" and the former "textual communication".

This preference applies to various contexts: social, personal, work, intellectual. And I don't think I personally know anyone who has a stronger preference for this than I do, although I suspect that there are at least a handful of people on LessWrong with stronger preferences than mine.

Here are some reasons that stick out to me for why I frequently prefer textual communication to oral communication, ordered very roughly from most to least important.[1]

  1. I find that, with oral communication, especially in groups, you frequently just end up in a "tangent frenzy" instead of discussing any one thing to something that at least vaguely resembles completion.
  2. It's easier/possible to discuss multiple threads in parallel.
  3. Being asynchronous, I, as well as the person(s) I'm talking with, can take my/their time and think before responding. This helps in figuring out your thoughts as well as with expressing them more clearly.
  4. Personally I find both interruptions and inverted interruptions a good amount more unpleasant than others do.
  5. The conversation can last a lot longer. With in person conversations, you usually will need to end them for practical reasons such as "it's 11pm and time to head home". But with textual communication, there's never really these sorts of obstacles.
  6. I think there is something about textual communication that is more meritocratic. It better holds people accountable. If you say something dumb, someone else can easily call it out in a thread, and if you don't respond to that thread, well, it kinda just sits there and makes you look bad. Sort of. On the other hand, in oral communication, you can say something dumb, the conversation moves on, and people don't get a proper chance to call you out for the dumb thing.
  7. It's easy to share the conversation with others.[2]
  8. For various reasons, sometimes it's nice to be able to reference the conversation in the future.
  9. I like being able to quote things. Sometimes quoting something the other person said to make it clear that I am responding to it. Other times quoting something someone who isn't part of the conversation said, but that I think is relevant.
  10. If I have something to say that has a dependency, I can say it, link to the dependency, and then the other person can, asynchronously, read the dependency before reading the main thing.
  11. I can ramble. With oral communication, I feel like it's a bit of an anti-pattern to say things of the form "I think X because of 1, 2 and 3. I also suspect Y, also because of 1 and 2 but also because of 4 and 5. This is probably tangential, but I strongly suspect Z because of 6." It's a bit rambly and doesn't really give the other person or people a chance to butt in and say "actually, I'd like to dispute 2". At least not at the most convenient time.[3]
  12. Sometimes it's helpful to reference an image or graphic.
  13. I wouldn't say that I could be more expressive in written communication, but I would say that I could be differently expressive -- such as saying things parenthetically like this -- in written communication.
  14. Sometime I prefer to say things in a way that sounds "fancy". In oral communication, even amongst rationalists, I often feel awkward about it and try to think of a more informal way of saying the thing. I usually wish I didn't have to do that though.
  1. ^

    Well, speaking more precisely, these are a bunch of benefits that I frequently see to textual communication. My preference depends on costs and benefits, on both sides. So what I really mean is that these sorts of benefits frequently end up being weighed pretty strongly such that I prefer textual communication.

  2. ^

    At the recent ACX meetup in Portland, I ran into something that I found a little unpleasant. There was a cocktail hour type of thing in the beginning where people would go around joining and leaving various small group conversations. When new people would join, we would pause and spend a decent amount of time trying to get the new person up to speed. I think this can be fine at times, but in those particular instances I felt like it really interrupted the flow of the conversation, and often times lead to us just going on a tangent and discussing something different instead.

  3. ^

    Actually, I think this very post is a better example. I'm basically saying "I prefer textual communication because of 1-14". With oral communication, it's kinda hard for the other person to wait until your done before saying "ok, now I'd like to dispute reason #2".

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18 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:16 PM

Beyond just the ability to quote things, I also appreciate the "perfect memory" aspect of text. The question of "did x say y?" is trivial to answer on any textual platform with a search feature. "I thought I said... oh, looks like I actually didn't" helps me update my own beliefs about my communication, and "wait, what did you say that I interpreted as x? oh, that, I see what went wrong" helps me do better in similar communications on later occasions.

This is a key point, advanced, sophisticated, verbal conversations are possible if and only if every participant has excellent working memory. 

If there's even the slightest doubt then relying on some record is a much better choice.

some counter-arguments, in no particular order of importance:

  1. Verbal communication is quite often more succinct, because it is easier to exhaust the vocal medium, and you can see in real time your conversationists getting bored with your rambling.
  2. Verbal communication allows far more nuance carried with tone, body language, and social situation, thus often delivers the message most clearly. I find it most useful when discussing Ethics: everyone is a clinical utilitarian when typing, but far more humanistic when they see the other person's facial reaction to your words.
  3. Rhetoric and charisma do not carry well over text. Most Rationalists consider it beneficial, right until the point where they need to explain something, or convince non-Rationalists and completely lack the tools to do so. Avoiding the use of verbal rhetoric and not training your in-person charisma is the surefire way to become very unconvincing to the general audience: case in point, every attempt by explain AI Risk to "muggles" by somewhat introvert and dry-talking Rationalists.
  4. Related to point 3: conversational charisma is the main tool used by human males to woo women. By not practicing conversational charisma, Rationalists ensure they will breed themselves out of existence.
  5. Most child-rearing and education is oral communication. Without practicing it, the Rationalist will not make a good parent or a teacher, and thus, from civilizational perspective, had squandered his rationality.
  6. Rubberducking: saying things out-loud quite often leads to epiphanies, especially negative ones ("wow, my cherished idea sounds really dumb when I say it out, loud."). Writing down, and then reading your own ideas often leads to an emotional feedback loop in which you reinforce your own conviction rather than nit-picking your own idea. This leads to...
  7. Oral communication avoids the risk of Rabbit-Holes. When writing, uninterrupted, it is easy to accidentally pick a logical mistake as the crux of your whole argument, and waste hours exploring it. In conversation, your partner/opponent can snip that in the bud. 
  8. Op-Sec. Oral conversation is far less likely to get you in trouble for the things you say, unless you are being recorded. Meanwhile, a text based conversation, especially on a social platform is a Sword of Damocles always hanging over your head. Say the wrong thing, and at worst a dozen people will consider you an ass. Write and post the wrong thing, and you might, decades from now, lose your job, your social standing, or even your life. An innocent comment today might make people cancel you in 2040, or a vengeful Basilisk mulching you in 2045.

I am sensing some implicit if not explicit claims that rationalists believe in Hollywood Rationality instead of Actual Rationality. To be clear, that is untrue.

possibly, but is that not basically a No True Rationalist trick? I do not see a way for us to truly check that, unless we capture LW rationalists one by one and test them, but even then, what is preventing you from claiming: "eh, maybe this particular person is not a Real Rationalist but a Nerdy Hollywood Rationalist, but the others are the real deal," ad nauseam?

I definitely agree that people who consider themselves Rationalists believe themselves to be Actual Rationalists not Hollywood Rationalists. This of course leads us to the much analyzed question of "why aren't Rationalists winning?" The answers I see is that either Rationality does not lead to Winning, Or the Rationalists aren't Actual Rationalists (yet, or at all, or at least not sufficiently). 

A major case in point is that Rationalists mostly failed to convince the world about the threat posed by unrestricted AI. This means that either Rationalists are wrong about the AI threat, or bad at convincing. The second option is more likely I think, and I wager the reason Rationalists have a hard time convincing the general public is not because the logic of the argument is faulty, but because the delivery is based on clunky rhetoric and shows no attempts at well engineered charisma.

I'm not sure if this addresses all of the things you're saying. If not, let me know.

  • I'm not claiming that all or even most rationalists actually are successful in leaning closer to Real Rationality than Hollywood Rationality. I'm claiming that a very large majority 1) endorse and 2) aspire towards the former rather than the latter.
  • Incremental Progress and the Valley talks about the relationship between rationality and winning. In short, what the post says and what I think the majority opinion amongst rationalists is, is that in the long run it does bring you closer to winning, but 1) a given step forward towards being more rational sometimes moves you a step back in towards on winning rather than forward, and 2) we're not really at the point in our art where it leads to a sizeable increase in winning.
  • As for convincing people about the threat of AI:
    • 1) I don't thing the art of rationality has spent too much time on persuasion, compared to, say, probability theory.
    • 2) I think there's been some amount of effort put towards persuasion. People reference Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini a fair bit).
    • 3) People very much care about anything even remotely relevant to lowering the chance of unfriendly AI or any other existential risk and will be extremely open to any ideas you or others have on how to do better.
    • 4) There very well might be some somewhat low hanging fruit in terms of being better at persuading others in the context of AI risk.
    • 5) Convincing people about the importance is a pretty difficult thing, and so lack of success very well might be more about difficulty than competence.

I find that, with oral communication, especially in groups, you frequently just end up in a "tangent frenzy" instead of discussing any one thing to something that at least vaguely resembles completion.

I like this description, and yes I hate the same thing.

I was told that the secret to being good at conversations is to be a good listener. But in groups, it doesn't matter anyway, because someone else will change the topic along a tangent.

I suspect that the true goal of group talking is to establish dominance hierarchy. People who successfully change the topic are high-status, people who try resisting the change and fail are low-status.

This is just vibing. It's not about the content, but a game to play with emotions, being able to take the emotion someone has sent you, play with it, and then send it back to the group.

There may be some status signaling going on here - but I think this is more about ingroup-outgroup than the high status-low status.  It's about can you be on the same emotional rhythm as the group.

My best guess (~70%?) is that it's actually just an urge. Like, "Ooo, ooo, that reminds me of X!". Which leads to the person proceeding to talk about X. Which leads to someone else being reminded of Y, and proceeding to talk about Y.

I don't think there's much dominance signaling or emotional "sending". At least not intentionally and consciously.

I don't disagree. There is indeed urge, and the ability to align that with group intent signals ingroup status. Similar to how many urges have status signalling benefits, I'd argue this urge has ingroup signalling benefits. You can of course learn to vibe consciously but for most normies it's largely subconscious.

I'm curious about the downvotes here. Is this an implausible hypothesis?

I didn't downvote, but your comment seems to overlook that status dynamics almost always happen subconsciously / feel like urges.

I'm not sure there's actually a status dynamic there, but if there is one, your first paragraph is actually consistent with that (which is the opposite of what your second paragraph suggests)

No, it makes sense to me. I have no idea why you were downvoted

Related - https://www.quora.com/Why-do-some-people-prefer-online-interactions-to-real-life-interactions/answer/Alex-K-Chen

In the defense of oral conversations (especially in person), any conversation dealing with emotions is much easier for me in person. There is so much to be wrongly interpreted through text : an emoji with many possible interpretations, the meaning of a dot at the end of a sentence, guessing the actual emotion of the other person behind the text… I think there are many ways to misinterpret a text and the amount of text required to make sure your message is correctly understood is often greater than if the person was in front of you + it can be annoying (for the sender and the receiver) to justify everything you‘re writing to make sure it’s not misinterpreted. 

To summarise, I think a written message will more often be misinterpreted than the same message said in person because there is more information in the latter : the person’s face and intonation. And to achieve the same chance of correct interpretation through text would require a longer message that often makes it feel "bloated".

I think there is something about textual communication that is more meritocratic. It better holds people accountable. If you say something dumb, someone else can easily call it out in a thread, and if you don't respond to that thread, well, it kinda just sits there and makes you look bad. Sort of. On the other hand, in oral communication, you can say something dumb, the conversation moves on, and people don't get a proper chance to call you out for the dumb thing.

Related: Four Layers of Intellectual Conversation.

You can go deep with voice communication, but I think that in-person communication is best for when you want to survey a topic. The quick feedback, and the necessity to lead with your best points, allows for rapid exploration of an idea space.

Moderators really help keep a group on-topic. I used to run a discussion group, and it wasn’t too hard to steer people back on track. Then again I suppose that’s true for most group discussions, no matter the format.