This is a bit theoretical – but that’s because it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a kind of foundation and exposition on communication. It might not be as practical as you want or need. It hasn’t been super practical for me. But, it has helped me think about how I communicate – and what communication is really about. The following posts are much more practical.
Lately I’ve been having conversations about language and words and meaning. I’m not sure why, but there’s been many a night spent with my wife or friends talking about talking in a warm lit pub. Taking the subway home one night last week I began to imagine :
I wake up in Germany. And as a note, I don’t speak German. Other than what I’ve learned from World War 2 movies. I am in the middle of a crowded square and I am painfully hungry. If I do not allow myself to use hand gestures and act out that I am hungry, my pleas for money or places to buy food will be largely futile. On a bench sits an old German fellow; I decide to speak to him. I’ll open my mouth and start using my lips and tongue to form words – and they will land on my new German friend’s ears. They will land there, but they won’t make any sense. And he will speak back, the same way, just in his language, and I won’t understand either.
It’s not that his words or my words are gibberish. If you were there standing beside me, you would understand what I am saying; and all the German people round us in that crowded square would understand him telling me where to find some Bratwurst or Schnitzel. What’s going on is that his words are gibberish to me. I don’t understand what he is saying because I don’t know his language.
Orwell wrote about this idea in an essay called Politics and the English Language. Well, the essay is more than just about misunderstandings – it’s about the death of the English language and ways that writing keep torturing it until it’s nothing.
Orwell says this :
“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
And that’s the part, or the idea, I think we can start to apply to how we communicate. Communicating is something we do every day – and yet it’s something we mess up on the regs. Miscommunication with our significant others or bosses or friends happen all the time. I think part of that is because we don’t know how to communicate – and the way we’ve been taught to do so is, to say it like George, foolish.
What is Communication ?
Communicating is really about conveying meaning. That’s a complex way to say when you speak, you want someone to understand exactly what you mean. It’s about having something to say and saying it in a way that’s clear. That might sound sort of obvious or redundant – but I don’t think it is anymore. We often say a lot without ever really saying anything ( take for example, a blog post ).
“Staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision” are what causes the vague communication. ( Still quoting George, here – and even though he is talking about writing, it makes perfect sense for speaking ). If the goal of communicating is to convey meaning, then having it be stale and vague is enemy number one.
By stale imagery Orwell means dying metaphors and meaningless words. This applies to communication differently than Orwell’s application to writers. I doubt many of us, when speaking, are concerned with the cadence and rhythm of our sentence structure – and maybe even less concerned with using old metaphors and boring analogies. That’s fine. We do need to care, however, about being stale. Being vivid is the opposite of being stale; and being vivid means being thoughtful and authentic ( more on that below ).
Lack of precision is either ‘having a meaning and not being able to express it, or inadvertently saying something else, or [being] indifferent to the meaning of words.” I’ve been there. I’ve started saying something and recognized I don’t know what I’m trying to say or recognized that I don’t know how to say it. I’ve felt that pressure and those eyes watching me – they’re wondering the same thing as me : where is this going ? Sometimes we kind of just muscle through what we were trying to say. Other times we miss the mark.
So, communication is having something to say and also the ability to say it in a way that others understand it.
Why Do We Communicate ?
Maybe this goes without saying, but we communicate to survive. We do it to make and keep our relationships going, to share and collect information, and influence others. Great – a good reason. But really, we don’t think about that stuff when we’re having a conversation with our buddies on the subway, or your in-laws at a holiday dinner, or while texting.
We communicate, I think ( for at least this post ) for understanding and enjoyment. We want to understand others and be understood by them. Not just on a deep and meaningful level, but also for enjoyment. Think of all the jokes and texts and conversations you’ve had about your day, or the outrageous thing that happened to you on the subway home, or whatever. It’s about being understood and understanding. It’s about enjoyment.
Part of that understanding and enjoyment is for yourself. Of course it is for others – but we also understand ourselves better if we communicate clearly. “By using stale [language], you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader, but for yourself” ( thanks again, Georgie ).
We understand ourselves better when we can communicate clearly. Here’s why : if language conveys meaning, and we are vague with our own thoughts and language, our understanding of ourselves will be vague.
This is something, I’m just finding out about. My normal emotions growing up were : happy, hungry, and angry. Everything else didn’t make sense to me – and I didn’t really make much sense to myself. People would talk about their own feelings, like being overwhelmed, and I didn’t get it. Then my wife sent me a picture of some 50 cartoon faces with different expressions. Under each of them was their corresponding emotions, written out. As silly as it sounds, it was really helpful – so much opened up for me. I wasn’t just angry. I could have been frustrated, jealous, exasperated, and on and on. Having words with meanings gave me understanding into myself. It made my language and expression of myself less vague. This means my understanding of myself was less vague.
That’s why we communicate. For understanding and enjoyment.
How Do We Communicate ?
This isn’t going to be a list of tools we use – there’s just too many. And I’d betray how behind the times I am. By how, I don’t mean talking, texting, messaging, snapchatting, or non-verbal cues – I mean more of a foundation.
How we communicate should be authentic and thoughtful.
Authentic means being true to yourself. Don’t always speak other people’s words. Here I am, quoting George Orwell, but I am also trying to be myself. Trying to take something he has done and apply it in my way.
We all have to figure out if what we say is a lie or just someone else’s words. We can speak lies all the time. I don’t mean “I didn’t take the last cookie from the jar.” What I mean is saying something we don’t believe in or agree with. Or just saying something for the approval of others. It happens pretty often. Sometimes we just say what we are supposed to say. That isn’t being authentic. It’s either denying yourself, or parroting what another person has said.
It might sound simple, but being authentic with your communication is one of the toughest things to do. It requires an understanding of yourself and confidence to be yourself. It’s pretty easy to see when someone isn’t being authentic in their communication. It’s mechanical, droning, heartless. When there is authenticity though, the communication comes with passion and force. We know it in ourselves when we’re being authentic with our language – because we feel stronger. Essentially, we’re behind and in what we’re saying. When we are being inauthentic, we feel weaker because we’re not behind or in what we are saying.
Thoughtful means using your own words, not just using those ready made phrases. It means you think about what you say. Sure, this might take a bit of extra time, but so much of communication depends on this.
Take this joke for example :
I told my wife she was drawing her eyebrows too high. She looked surprised.
If you don’t think about what you say, you can miss the punchline. If I change one word, the joke is totally different :
I told my wife she was drawing her eyebrows too high. She was surprised.
I told my wife she was drawing her eyebrows too high. She looked angry.
Being thoughtful makes the joke. Being thoughtful helps our language and communication be true and precise. It’s almost always worth the effort and time to choose words thoughtfully.
Orwell says that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Which is essentially being inauthentic and thoughtless. He also says that when we decay into that form of speaking, we “turn instinctively to long [ and scientific ] words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
That instinct, I think, is pretty key. When we get afraid or unsure of being authentic in our communication, we fall back into vagueness. I see this at work pretty often. People don’t know what they’re talking about, or are afraid to really say what’s going on – so they use big, pretentious, confusing business jargon. It drives me insane.
But it also shows something. We can hide behind our words – fall back into the way everyone else communicates, and get by. So many people at work who should have been questioned about mistakes or delays weaseled their way out with obscure verbal gymnastics. I think how we say things reveals who we are.
If we communicate pretentiously, we may find out that we’re insecure or arrogant. Maybe we are trying to hide behind our words. Maybe we’re trying to use our words to prove that we’re something we really aren’t.
If we communicate, like I did, vaguely, we may find out we don’t know ourselves ( or others ) as well as we had hoped.
Questions to Ask ?
Orwell gives questions he says every writer should ask himself with every sentence he writes :
What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
He also says that we aren’t obliged to go through all this trouble, but if we don’t, we fall right back into being stale, imprecise, and ultimately not understood.
I disagree with him here – not ideally, but practically. I’m not saying that every time you try to talk to someone, you need to mentally process each response by asking these six questions. I’m just saying, ask yourselves these questions in general. Ask them and learn from them.
Wrapping It Up
First, off the top – when someone else sits and writes about communication, I know I get judgmental. I know that in the above blog post I’ve been stale and vague and probably misunderstood. I’ve definitely made the mistakes that I am asking you to think through and stop making. But that’s sort of the point. Communication isn’t about being perfect – it’s about getting better. Getting more vivid and clear.
Communication is speaking with meaning; it is saying something and having it be understood properly. And that’s also why we communicate – because we want to understand others and be understood by them. When we communicate clearly we both have others understand us and we learn to understand ourselves.
We communicate by being authentic and thoughtful. That might be hard, but it’s important to understanding. If I don’t speak authentically, I’ll never know myself and others won’t know me – they will just know what I pretend to be. Being thoughtful is really just being patient enough to make sure what you say is understood.
Ever since I first read the essay, it’s been in my mind. And that’s really all I hope for this blog post – for it to stick in your mind a bit. Maybe it sets up a little spot in the basement of your brain. You might not see it everyday, but it’s there. And whenever you venture down into that basement to check on the freezer or heater, you’ll see him there, waving, reading the paper, reminding you that how you communicate impacts everything.