Don’t you just love sitting at a table on a café terrace outside and watching people go by? And is there anything more satisfying than being able to comment on someone based on their facial expression, the way they walk, the clothes and perfume they’re wearing, how they use their hands, etc? In fact, this is something we actually do all the time. We are continually interpreting what we see, hear, feel, taste and smell, and we decide for ourselves that this is ‘reality’. Our reality, to be more specific.
And that’s how it is with language too. We use language to communicate with each other and we assume that the other person understands what we mean. Sometimes this works fine, but sometimes it doesn’t. That’s logical of course, because language is a ‘medium’ which our brain does all sorts of things with. The spoken or written language (external world) enters our brain (internal world) and is converted into meaning and images and linked to an emotion based on our experiences. For example, if I ask you what the word ‘dog’ means, you have an immediate image of it (for example a ‘pitbull’). After all, our brain thinks in terms of images. If I then ask you to give me an unambiguous definition of the word ‘dog’, you will probably be able to come up with something reasonable. But the question is whether your definition also describes my dog. Because when I think of a dog, the image of ‘Pablo’ immediately comes to my mind. A black and white cocker spaniel with long drooping ears and a small tail that I grew up at home with. The fact that we both attach different images and meaning to one specific word can lead to a misconception that then forms the basis for miscommunication. The effect this can have is wonderfully illustrated in this short ‘coast guard video’.
Apart from the image and the meaning that I give to the word ‘dog’, the word also immediately evokes a feeling of happiness in me. I then recall the times I took Pablo out for walks in the town where I grew up. How I used to walk there with him, how I would hit the ball with a tennis racquet and how he would run to fetch it. Until he was so tired that he would lie down next to me, tongue foaming heavily, and refuse to fetch the ball. Fantastic! But someone who was bitten by a dog when he was young might have extremely unpleasant associations with the word ‘dog’. And this emotional experience will then influence his way of thinking and communicating about that topic. In other words: even in the exceptional case that you and I attach the exact same meaning and image to one word, as a result of our different experiences, we can each associate a different emotion with that word, and this will in turn influence our communication!
The risk of miscommunication increases due to the fact that the process of attaching meaning, images and emotion to words is predominantly a totally unconscious one. Just observe what happens while you’re reading this newsletter. You don’t have to think about the meaning of the words; you understand immediately what is being said. And while you’re reading, you are forming an opinion and an emotion is evoked. And all this happens totally automatically! Or look at the following text: ‘Accroidng ot a sdtuy ta na Elnigsh uvinetrsiy, ti dseon’t metatr ni waht scneqeuce the lretets ni a wrod are plcaed, the olny thing taht is iomtaprnt is taht the frsit and lsat lteetrs fo the wrod are ni the rgiht palce. The rset fo the ltetres can eb paecld rnoldmay and you can tehn jsut raed waht’s trhee. Tihs si bseacue ew dn’ot raed ecah lteetr sapetarely but the wrod sa a wlhoe’. Now, that wasn’t so difficult was it? Or, when you’re talking to someone, try paying specific attention to how quickly the words go back and forth. Are you continually thinking about what you’re going to say and which words you choose, or are you occasionally surprised by what comes out of your mouth?
Your challenge for this newsletter is to do the following exercise for the next three weeks. Every time someone asks you ‘do you understand what I’m saying?’ ask yourself CONSCIOUSLY whether you really do understand what the other person means (you know what the other person means) or whether you have more or less interpreted it based on your own meaning, images and emotions (you think you know what the other person means). In the latter case, say ‘No’ to the other person and ask the other person about the meaning, images and emotions the topic evokes in him. And if you haven’t asked the other person any questions, then by definition you have been interpreting!
Have fun communicating!