Words…Always Getting in The Way of Communication


There’s a lot being said on facebook, blogs, magazines and occasionally in face-to-face conversation. Right now most of it is focused on the shooting in Connecticut, gun regulation and mental health care. I’m not ready to weigh in on that because the grief is still too fresh. However, as I read posts and comments I see the same situation we witnessed in the months leading up to the election…and with just about every other major news story. People talking past one another, building up an army of straw-people with which to argue, and generally doing everything BUT communicating. That reminded me of a half-written post that’s been sitting on my desktop for months.

The point of that (this) post is that communication would be so much simpler if we didn’t have to use words.

How many times has a conversation broken down because one or both parties were so hung up on the other’s words that they couldn’t hear what was being said?

Sometimes the problem is that, purposely or on accident, we use emotionally-loaded language. I remember a time in high school when time seemed to stand still…

We were in the locker room after football practice. A group of guys were in an argument and pretty close to a fight. No big deal…these guys were almost always arguing and fighting. Several of them were related and all had grown up in the same neighborhood. The argument would likely lead to fisticuffs, but nothing more.

So most of us were just ignoring them. I was jealously wondering how they still had energy to argue…I could barely move after our workout.

Then another teammate, a big goofy redneck, walked through the door. He was an offensive lineman and was NEVER in a good mood after practice. Most of us were half-dressed by the time he made it into the locker room.

He saw the guys arguing and, after a few annoyed expletives, said, “Why are you people always fighting?”

The room was immediately bathed in silence. For a few moments that felt like hours it was really, really quiet…until the yelling started.

Oh yeah, did I mention that the guys fighting were black?

In this instance, “You people” referred to this specific group of guys who were always at each others’ throats…but that was most definitely NOT how they understood the phrase. And everyone in the room (with the exception of one goofy lineman) knew it as soon as the words were uttered.

Fisticuffs did ensue…just not as we had initially anticipated.

This isn’t just a problem in racially charged scenarios, and it’s not simply an issue for testosterone-fueled teenage guys.

Many times the communication break-down occurs between social groupings – gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economics, geography, political affiliation, education level, and religious background can all play a role. But the struggle isn’t limited to these obvious cultural differences.

All communication is cross-cultural…even if we’re just talking to ourselves.

Perhaps speaking a common language is one of the biggest miscues for communication. We can be lulled into a false sense of “being on the same page,” and never realize how much we’re speaking past one another.

I have another memory from high school (yep, just the two…the rest is a blur). We were on a summer mission trip in Mexico. I sat on the back pew in a swelteringly hot, one room building with a 10 year old Mexican boy. It was my first trip across the border and I could only speak a few halting sentences in Spanish. He spoke even less English. And yet, we talked.

We were very aware of just how incoherent our words were to one another, and I’m convinced that knowledge helped us communicate much more carefully. He loved his small village of La Pesca. He loved the ocean, his large family (a term that I soon realized was not limited to blood relation), playing soccer with his friends. He wanted to visit the US, but he had no interest in living there. He was happy we were visiting, not because of the work we came to do but because he loved meeting new people. He thought my Texas-accented, broken Spanish was hilarious, but he thanked me for trying to speak his language.

The significance of that conversation wasn’t found in the details we learned about one another. It was the sense that for that moment, because we couldn’t assume anything about our communication, we were completely attuned to one another. We were listening deeply with all our senses. We were both fully present.

I met many people in Mexico on that and subsequent trips. Later, as my Spanish improved, I had conversations that were significantly more verbally coherent. But still, close to 20 years later, his face is the first one that comes to mind when someone mentions visiting Mexico.

Words, and the assumption that they mean the same thing for the speaker and hearer, can really make communication difficult.

We live in an age of relative and rapidly evolving definitions. Perhaps things were different in ages past, when people lived around the same people for most or all of their lives; when travel or even communication with other groups was rare.

But the world has changed. Whether we like the change or not is beside the point. It happened. It is now more important than ever to slow down and make sure there is some amount of consistency between what is being said and what is being heard.

Assuming that we’re all speaking the same language just because we’re speaking the same language can cause serious problems.

However, if we will take the time to be fully present in a conversation we can find ourselves communicating deeply with another person. We don’t have to share cultural backgrounds, religious affiliation, political leanings, sports team loyalty or even native language.

Of course, there’s also the question of whether we actually want to hear what the other is saying. But that’s a post for another day…



Posted on December 19, 2012, in community, culture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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