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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Misunderstandings and Language

It's pretty easy for others to misunderstand you whether you're speaking or writing. Words are just symbols used to convey meaning, so words, themselves, often fail to convey accurate interpretations of intentions. Speech does offer inflection, gestures, tones, and body language as meaningful companions to words whereas writing depends entirely upon its own relatively simple (often mechanical} conventions on cold paper (or today, on monitor) to elicit understanding.
Some people are content to live with misunderstandings due to language misuse, but many would like to minimize these negative consequences.
In both speaking and writing, the old cliche' "words are cheap" can certainly apply. Some throw excess language into the air as scattered seeds, hoping part of their cast falls into fertile ears. Of course, lack of economic distribution creates great waste in such an approach.
Caught in the shower of unfertilized words, the readers/listeners are struck by some of the message as they dutifully attempt to comprehend each statement. The words that do hit their intended targets may germinate in the mind and create appropriate understandings. Other wasted words merely clog comprehension or fall to their fateful demise.
Sooner or later, the readers/listeners become acutely aware that excess language is a smoke screen for simpler intentions. They overtax themselves to strain the kernels of knowledge from their ornamental camouflage and realize the work is not worth the effort. Unfortunately, meanings become secondary as misunderstandings grow stronger. The flood of words produces a drop of reason. Seneca aptly stated,"What is required is not a lot words, but effectual ones."
Just as hazardous to creating understanding in speech and writing is the lack of words. Very often bare elaboration leaves readers/listeners puzzled and groping for more. Mature practitioners learn to illustrate their communication with adequate, accurate detailed development. Giving rich, pertinent information, these speakers/writers stay on point and deliver properly groomed discourse. Speech does offer opportunities for verbal clarifications and interruptions. Usually writing takes care of these concerns in revision.
One fault observed in many Internet discussions and blogs is this lack of adequate development. Instead of thoughtful language delivery, most people practice a loose approach that has many readers asking for clarifications. Since the delivery of further elaboration is almost instantaneous, many do not worry about being misunderstood as they press their keyboards. Consider the not-so-distant past when snail mail communication would have complicated misunderstandings due to increased time of delivery.
Quickly, the Internet has become not only the playground of the quipster but also the home range of those who write formal communication. Forums ranging from chat rooms to blogs to publications attract writers by the millions. Many have found they must peak their language skills to be effectively understood. In truth, most English language arts teachers are smiling more than a stage full of Miss America contestants over this increased language awareness.
Whether speaking or writing, people must consider the needs of their audience if they wish to produce understandable words and meanings. The simple goal is to share information, but the information is meaningless if at least minimal context is lacking.
Who likes to iron out misunderstandings or to be misinterpreted? Words, themselves, are very limited in meaning whereas proper combinations of words produce effectual communication. So, even in bare blips of speaking/writing, people must develop and organize. Albert Einstein once said, "All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual." This must surely apply to communication.
Language and understanding go hand in hand. Don't you hate to be misunderstood when trying to communicate important information? The risks of losing friendships or losing credibility are great for those who view and use language in vague terms. You must respect the power of language to realize its potential. Often, a little consideration of audience and intended meaning before the pen or lips move will save extra efforts at reconciliation.
Just for fun, consider five possible meanings of this speech utterance depending upon the inflection of voice used by the speaker.
"I did not say you stole the money."
"I did not say I stole the money."
"I did not say I stole the money."
"I did not say I stole the money."
"I did not say I stole the money."
"I did not say I stole the money."
And how about this bit of college humor to illustrate the possible interpretation of a statement taken out of context? (
"The girls at this party are all ugly."
Freshman: None of these girls will talk to me.
Sophomore: I'm not drunk enough yet.
Junior: The girls at this party are very unattractive.
Senior: I'm not as confident in my ability to attract women since I lost the ability to see my feet.
Alumni: Jeez, I hope my daughter isn't one of the 'ugly girls' in her grade, because judging by the girls who came to her birthday party, yikes...
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