The subtle art of communication. How we understand and misunderstand each other every day.

Today, i’ll speak to people, email people, talk on the phone, Skype and wave at someone across the street. There’s a birthday card that i should send as well. And i need to write two proposals and a report. All of this is communication, but all in different media, at different speeds and with different purposes in mind.

In my own mind, things are quite ordered and well understood. Or at least, well understood and ordered enough for me to go about my everyday life. Some things are clear, such as knowing where Tescos is and where i left the car. Other things are less well understood, such as philosophy or how my Mac works, but i can get by in both. The trouble comes when i have to communicate with others. So often, the message transmitted doesn’t seem to be the message understood. Why is this? If something is clear in my mind, surely it should be simple to get it into yours?

Well, clearly it isn’t. Virtually all communication is about misunderstanding around a small shared framework of commonality and understanding. There is entropy at every level, the decay of the message, confusion and deliberate contortion of meaning and just plain noise.

Lets start at the beginning. We all have our own Worldview. This is essentially our knowledge, experience, feelings, background, our view of the world around us. My Worldview is fairly typical of the millions of people who i live near in middle England. No surprise there. It’s not the same though. Every book i’ve read, documentary i’ve watched, pub conversation i’ve had and failed relationship has led to my worldview being adapted and changed. I know what i know, i know right from wrong and i know what i think. And that’s the foundation from which i communicate.

So when i write the birthday card today, or make a phone call, or write this article, i’m writing it from on top of that foundation. Then i broadcast my message. The birthday card is pretty simple. I commit pen to paper, write what i want to say, seal it into an envelope and commit it to the vagaries of the British postal system. I transmit it by Royal Mail, and a heavily tanned cyclist in a red shirt will deliver it to a distant letterbox for 49p. The card with then be opened and read. It’s got some references to hoping it’s a good year, hoping things have settled down after last year, sending love and best wishes.

This communication is built on common understanding. I don’t need to write about what happened last year; we share that knowledge. Love and best wishes go without saying, but by saying it i reinforce the feelings of companionship and friendship that underly the relationship. I get no feedback from this, at least not until my birthday in two weeks, but this is a slow, long burning friendship, that deepens over time.

I won’t be sending love and best wishes with the proposal. I’ll be sending it with best wishes and a budget attached. The proposal is a formal communication, but, more importantly, its to someone that i don’t know. We have no commonality or necessarily common frames of reference. Everything that they know about me will be through what i type on the keyboard. I’m an artist painting a picture, but it’s a picture of what i want them to know. The message that they receive will be filtered through their own Worldview; their experience of UK suppliers, their experience in the field, whether they like my style of writing, if i make spelling mistakes, all these things will influence their judgement.

It’s the same on the phone or Skype, but the process is much faster. Everything i say or do passes through filters. Some of these are environmental; is the line bad, does the connection drop out, are they short sighted, whilst others are perceptual, what is their Worldview and experience. All communication takes place within the fiery entropy of the real world. Noise, distractions, diversions and assumptions all get in the way of the message transmitted being actually understood.

Speaking to a friend on the phone, we can get away with a terrible line. We know how we speak, we are not making first impressions, we are performing, but within safe and familiar characters. With a stranger, you can’t get away with such a poor channel of communication. If the line is crackly or drops out, it has a real impact on how they perceive me. The greater our familiarity with the person or topic, the greater the degree of entropy that our communication can penetrate, but it’s always a factor.

Whoever we are communicating with, we follow an active pattern of choosing our vocabulary, which words we use, matching our speech or writing to theirs. We may not do it consciously, but we do do it. Part of this is about establishing commonality and shared patterns, part is about establishing authority and even power. Words are powerful things.

Communication is a fascinating subject. By reading this, we are communicating. Over distance, over time. Understanding the foundations may not make us better communicators, but it may help us to think about how people receive our messages. We may want to think more deeply about Worldview and how message transmitted may not necessarily be message understood.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Communication, Language, Uncategorized, Understanding, Worldview and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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