Thursday, February 14, 2008

Communication: Indirect and Imperfect

There are reasons why we cannot ever say exactly what we mean. We all want people to say what they mean and we want others to know exactly what we mean when we speak to them. I believe it can be agreed that this is a universal desire- to understand and be understood. But in all the centuries of humanity we have never perfected the craft and there are a lot of causes. For starters, language is comprised of words which are only symbols to represent other things- they are not the actual thoughts or feelings we are trying to express. Therefore, as symbols are not interpreted the same by all individuals, there is nearly no way to be sure our thoughts are getting across.

But there are other more delicate reasons why we cannot to say what we mean. This entire blog is the result of a train of thought set off by a conversation I observed between my friend and her boyfriend last night. It was her birthday and we were all going out to dinner to celebrate. On the way her boyfriend called and said he didn’t think he was coming. In a matter of minutes they were in a full fledged fight and she yelled, “Fine! Just stay at home! I don’t want you to come so don’t!” but we all knew it was of vital importance to her that he showed up. After several phone calls of varying levels of frustration, he ended up at dinner. Everything had blown over and we were having a laugh about the whole thing when he asked in exasperation, “Why don’t girls ever just say what they mean?! Why do you say you don’t want me to come when you do?” to which my friend answered, “I told you that I always mean the opposite of what I say.” But that isn’t what she meant either. “Why can’t you just tell me what you want?” he asked again. It occurred to me just then that in such situations it is impossible to say what you want because what she actually wanted was for him to decide on his own that he wanted to be with her- not because she or any other outside force had made him feel obligated to. By telling him, that would have made it impossible for him to do so.

It is an interesting thing to me how many situations there must be like this in which we don’t realize the real problem. Communicational errors in many cases can be corrected but what can we do about the delicate ones like this? I’m not sure there is much to be done about them.

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