Sunday, December 20, 2009

Human communication - Iffy, at its best

Recent events have made it evident to me that it borders on miraculous that we humans are successful at communicating via the spoken word to any meaningful extent. Human language carries with it so little direct information about our actual intended meaning, that it becomes very easy for misinterpretation of our words. So easy, in fact, that misunderstandings are pretty common. It takes considerable effort and some honest, civil discourse to determine that what may appear to be disagreements are simply misunderstandings.

That many misunderstandings occur as a result of Internet-based typed communications is both evident and legendary. Without the nonverbal cues that accompany face-to-face conversation, people can get so upset by someone's typed words that they react in a very negative way, often stimulating a similar reaction - culminating in the classical "flame war" so common on message boards. It seems that nonverbal cues can reduce the likelihood of misinterpretation. Nevertheless, even face-to-face conversation can be misinterpreted. I think most all of us recognize this.

Since we have no telepathic powers (outside of science fiction), we humans find it challenging to understand the intentions of those with whom we interact via the spoken (and written) word. Obviously, the barriers between people who are native speakers in different languages are even higher, even when they are both reasonably fluent in a common language. In addition to the language barrier as a direct impediment to communication, the cultural contexts put a level of subtlety on the spoken word that can be quite difficult to communicate. Verbatim, word-for-word translations between languages are notoriously bad at conveying meaning. I wonder how many wars between nations speaking different languages have begun because of a misunderstanding that has its origins in such communication barriers.

Even when considering only native speakers of the same language, the spoken word can convey impressions that are inconsistent with the intentions of the speakers. Some recent experience makes that very clear to me - and it's something that concerns me. How easy it is to assume that you've been understood in all aspects, when the reality is that your message was lost because the hearer heard something in your words that you never intended to say.

I can only suggest that when your blood is boiling because of what someone has said to you, perhaps it's a good time to slow down that reactionary response, and consider what the speaker's intended meaning might have been. Rather than a direct response to a perceived insult or provocation, you should consider a more measured response, seeking clarification about their intended meaning. Yes, this is probably more easily said than done, but it might prevent you from having the conversation descend into a tit-for-tat exchange of angry verbal grenades, or worse. Don't respond to what you think you heard; instead, seek a clarified understanding of the speaker's intentions.

Human language is reknowned for its capacity to convey subtle shades of meaning. But that subtlety includes the potential for ambiguity of intention. Certain words can stimulate a particular reaction, whereas different, but similar, words might engender a radically different reaction. When you think carefully about it, it's remarkable that we're as successful at communication via language as we are. The subtleties conveyed through the spoken word can be lost if the recipient doesn't grasp them, for some reason. It's dangerous to assume that the recipients of your words have understood your intended meanings.