Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Today’s thought comes by way of my neighbor, Dr. Alan Christensen, a professor of Maya history and language. For those of you who don’t have the benefit of living close to someone who knows more about the Maya than most of us know about our own home towns, let me share a fact or two. The Maya are the indigenous people currently living in Mesoamerica. Over six million of them make their homes in a region that runs from the Yucatan peninsula down through Central America. Around four thousand years ago the Maya developed astronomy, a calendrical system, and hieroglyphic writing. In fact, they developed one of only five phonetic writing systems known to the world. During their golden age, the Maya were more advanced than almost all of the civilizations of their time.
The story that caught my attention goes back a few years to when Alan was helping create a Maya dictionary. One evening as he closed up his work in the mountains of Guatemala, he realized that he needed to descend to his base camp before it grew too dark. He would be hiking through a dangerous jungle known for, among other things, packs of wild dogs.
As Alan hurried along an animal trail he stumbled upon a tiny Maya village. It consisted of a few huts surrounding a central courtyard. In front of one of the huts stood a bench, and sitting on the bench were the village elders. Rather than ask for directions (his pressing issue), Alan gracefully started the conversation with what is known as the Maya introduction ritual. With the Maya you can’t merely walk up to someone and ask, “What’s happening dude?” Instead, you must introduce yourself and all of your known ancestors along with what they did during their lives! After over an hour of ancestor talk, Alan finally was able to ask for directions down the mountain. By now it had grown so dark that he was quite worried about the wild dogs. The locals assured him that his journey would be safe. One of them would accompany him to his destination.
Before Alan could continue his hike down the mountain, one of the villagers asked him what had taken him up the mountain in the first place. Dr. Christensen explained that he had been compiling a dictionary of their language. His answer took them by surprise. They had known that the Spanish language could be written, but it had never occurred to them that their own language could ever be captured on stone or paper. Alan assured them that not only could it be, but that their language had been written centuries earlier but lost. In fact, the land around them was replete with ancient temples that contained a great deal of early Maya writing.
“What did our ancestors have to say to us?” one of the elders asked. Alan just happened to be carrying the translation of one of the more famous passages (to archeologists, not to the Maya), so he pulled it out and read it to them. The villagers sat in silence, eagerly listening. Tears ran down their cheeks as they heard for the first time the wisdom of their much-honored predecessors. “Are there other words? Where can we find all of what they had to say to us?”
As Alan explained that scholars were working on translating other writings, one of the elders asked, “Could I speak aloud to you and then you write down my words—for my children?” “Yes,” the others chimed in, “Could you write our words?”
Alan didn’t make it down the mountain that evening. Instead, he played the role of scribe as eager fathers composed words of wisdom to their offspring. Finally, the chief invited him into his hut where he privately composed a document for his only son. He had already lost seven children, and now his only remaining son had been struck with tuberculosis. He wanted to write a message to him before he was inevitably taken by the disease. He poured his heart out as Alan sat and wrote.
As I listened to Dr. Christensen tell this story I was intrigued to learn that upon first hearing of their long-lost language, the villagers wanted to hear the words of their ancestors—to learn from the wisdom of the ages. Then they became consumed with the ideas of writing down their thoughts to benefit their own children.
How different we are from these Maya villagers. For the Maya, who saw and heard the written word for the first time, the value of the written word was incalculable. To those of us who live in a veritable sea of text, the marginal utility of the next written word approaches zero. Our indifference is understandable. Since a codified system can be applied to any and all words, including a list of ingredients on the side of a box of Cocoa Puffs, most of us have developed methods to insulate ourselves from the unrelenting deluge of minutia, sales pitches, and unsolicited advice that streams before us each day.
As a natural consequence of nearly drowning in words, most of us don’t write much—well, certainly not much of any substance. Unlike the Maya elders who, after knowing of their written language for only a few minutes, had already composed heart-felt notes of love and advice to their children, we haven’t done the same with our own offspring despite the fact that we have known how to write for decades. Somewhere between penning our first “I love you Mommy,” and writing a term paper on the digestive system of the worm, we stopped writing for pleasure.
Writing simply isn’t our medium of choice any more. As leaders we certainly don’t write serious thought pieces or calls to action, and as parents we rarely write words of adoration or instruction. Today we compose e-mails and text messages—often unpunctuated and almost always brief. The coin of today’s verbal realm is idle chit chat, acronyms (LOL), and abbreviated business-speak.
To put this change in communication style into perspective, consider the following: Thomas Jefferson wrote over 20,000 letters during his career. Of course, if I wrote with the majesty and eloquence of Thomas Jefferson, I’d write more letters too. But it’s not merely a matter of ability. Most of us no longer desire to write. We choose not to. Maybe we’re reluctant to express ourselves in writing because our first attempts to capture our thoughts and dreams typically fell under the chilling gaze of grammarians who accused us of dangling our modifiers and splitting our infinitives when all we really wanted to do was tell a story and have someone read it.
So today we rely on other media. At work, we write precious little of any real substance. Instead we hold meetings. Talking is fast, cheap, and interactive. Talking requires no style guide, spell check, or grammar review. And let’s not forget the really big benefit of oral argument: If you don’t put anything in writing, you aren’t committing to something that people can rub your nose in later. Nobody ever made a photocopy of something stupid you said in a meeting and circulated it around the company.
And yet, writing remains a powerful tool for influence. I once worked on a massive corporate change project where I wrote a weekly e-mail to all of the leaders. In the document I described what we had done that week and why. I shared theory and philosophy. I honestly described both successes and failures. I even expressed my concerns and feelings. Often the document was a full two pages long.
At first I worried that the weekly two-pager was out of step with the corporate culture, but soon learned that the documents were becoming the voice of the change project. People would stop me in the hallway and ask questions or make comments. The letter drew people together in a way that I hadn’t imagined. Water-cooler talk transformed from light-weight sports analysis and petty gripes to thoughtful discussions of where the leaders were trying to take the company and what it would require to get there. An atmosphere of concern and criticism slowly shifted to one of guarded optimism. The ailing company was on the mend and everyone was playing a role in the healing. And strangely enough, the weekly letter played an important role in propelling the change.
And how about parents? Should they make more use of the written word? When my oldest daughter took a job in Ecuador, I wrote her a weekly letter where I expressed my love and concern for her along with daily chit chat and updates on sports and current events. These were the first letters I had composed since 1966, when I was living in Brazil and wrote to my own parents. I hadn’t written a letter for over thirty years because the phone had replaced my pen. However, since the cost of even a brief phone call to Ecuador was the equivalent of a steak dinner, I returned to writing letters. Since writing down my thoughts seemed more formal and important to me than merely chatting, I made an effort to express deeper and more meaningful ideas than I would have left to my natural proclivities. My daughter still has all of those letters.
I’m reminded of the movie The Great Santini. When the Santini’s oldest son turns sixteen, his mother writes him a letter and places it in his lunch bag. In it she expresses her love and appreciation for the man he has become. It’s a beautiful piece of writing and I’ve often thought of that scene, wondering how many of us have the courage to do the same. Will we take the time to write our thoughts on paper, where they are recorded forever and can be easily recalled years, even centuries, later? Probably not. Either we don’t think to write down our thoughts or we’re afraid of placing them in public view.
But like it or not, fear it or not, the written word still can play an important role in our lives. The day will come when we’re gone and the only thing left of us will be hundreds of still photographs that place us in front of tourist attractions, a handful of short video clips where we ritually mouth, “Get that camera out of my face!” and lastly, perhaps most importantly, our written words. The Maya understood the value of the written word the minute they learned that they could write their thoughts to their own children. And now, through their eyes, I’m coming to the same understanding.