Thursday, December 29, 2016

My Reservations About Skype

Several of my friends and family members are Skype fans. I can see their attraction to it, it seems to be a good service. So far I am reticent to join them in such video calls, whether Skype, Line, Facebook or otherwise. I have my reasons.

E-mail, to me, is a much more manageable social situation. Most of us wear masks in life to one degree or another, and those masks are much easier to maintain in e-mails.

I teach a very basic primer on the American legal system at a Southeast Asian university. We, my Thai colleagues and I, keep the emphasis on developing the vocabulary and strategies necessary for discussing the law in English. American law should interest my students, but what I think is more important is that they will soon be required to discuss the laws of other Asian countries with lawyers from those countries. They will do this in English.  

Usually I’ll start by introducing some vocabulary; then I try to explain the law as best I can; and finally I tell them a story in Thai to illustrate how the law works. One such lesson concerns the requirement that witnesses actually show up in court and subject themselves to cross-examination in front of the defendant and the jury. This is the Constitutional “right to confront witnesses.” No one can just write out a statement and sign it “under penalty of perjury.” (With a nod to the twenty-six exceptions to the hearsay rule.) That’s not enough. We want the jury to look the witness in the eyes. After all, we’re going to ask the jury to decide whether they believe the witness or not.

And that’s where I tell them this story. “Imagine,” I tell them, “that you are on the phone with your friend, and her sound is not quite right, there’s something in her voice. You ask her, ‘is everything okay?’ and she answers, cheerfully, ‘yes! Fine!’” On the phone you are not able to see your friend’s face, so you probably think that everything really is okay.

“Same friend,” I go on, “but you’re talking together eye to eye. Something doesn’t seem right, so you ask her, ‘are you okay?’ She answers like this:” (I lower my eyes and knit my brow very briefly, and raise my eyes again with a smile.) “Yes! Fine!” Then I point out to them that they could all see what had happened, and that in person you can clearly see that, yes, something is bothering your friend. That's exactly why we require them to come to court. We need to look them in the eye while they testify and answer questions. 

And this is the same phenomenon that keeps me off of Skype. E-mail allows a greater degree of information management. If I am not in the happiest of moods, I can disguise that fact very well in e-mail. I can even wait a day until I am in a better mood. On Skype, eye to eye, I’m going to get nailed.

I’m protecting my correspondents as much as I’m protecting myself. I don’t want to be a worry to anybody. It’s best all around if people have the impression that my life is a wonderful adventure and an entire catalog of dreams that have come true.

So please accept my apologies, friends and family of the Skype generation. Be assured that I love you and that I would love the chance to talk to you face to face on occasion. In a room somewhere would be best. I’m sure that someday I’ll get around to joining the Skype team, and, in the manner of so many such new technologies, I’ll get used to it in no time. But for now, I’m hanging back. It’s nothing personal. Thanks for your patience. 

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