This has been the summer of communication snafus. I seem to be particularly aware of the many ways in which people fail to get their messages across, don’t hear what others are saying to them, or interpret what they have heard in ways the speaker never intended. I have witnessed or been party to so many of the communication breakdowns, big and small, that I have really begun to wonder if humans are capable to engaging in meaningful conversation.
If you look at the big picture—international diplomacy—attempts to talk across cultural, language, and political barriers seem nearly impossible. Even if both parties speak the same language, their version of the language is filtered through centuries of history and culture. Further complicate such dialog by having it transmitted through an interpreter, and there is yet another opportunity for misunderstanding,
Most of us aren’t trying to talk to others in diplomatic settings. We aren’t speaking from prepared text. And we don’t have someone between us trying to clarify what the other person just said. In most cases, we are speaking English to another native English speaker. We are talking about familiar subjects, often to people we know well or at the very least are acquainted with.
Despite all those factors, communication often breaks down in myriad ways. The most common one is simply this: I say something to you. I think what I said and what I meant were perfectly clear. There is no way you wouldn’t understand. But for some reason, the message you receive is not the message I sent. You hear something else entirely. How could that happen? It was a simple statement. How could you fail to get it?
Here are some of the possibilities:
- You didn’t hear what I said.
- You weren’t really listening. Your mind was elsewhere, preoccupied with some other thought.
- You didn’t really understand what I was saying. My message was unclear.
- Certain words had a different meaning to you than they had to me.
- Most important, that message went through a number filters before it reached you. By the time you got it, it had been interpreted through your senses, your emotions, your grasp of the language, your understanding of the subject, and your life experiences.
Is it any wonder you missed my point? Unless we were on exactly the same wavelength, it was unlikely you could have received precisely what I sent. What’s worse is that neither one of us realizes the message was lost in translation. I don’t ask you to tell me repeat what I said in your own words, and you don’t feed the message back to me.
So, in that simple straightforward interaction communication breaks down and we don’t even realize it. Think of the implications of that microcosmic event in terms of the billions of conversations of varying degrees of importance that are taking place every minute in every part of the world.
If really want peace in our time (at home or on the planet), it might be worth our effort to tackle this problem: how to ensure that the message sent is the message received. That should keep our scientists, philosophers, linguists, and politicians busy for quite a while.