Sunday, September 10, 2006

Do they understand what you mean?

So difficult it is to show the various meanings and imperfections of words when we have nothing else but words to do it with.
- John Locke, philosopher (1632-1704)

Locke, an educated man, was concerned about how the meanings and imperfections of words could be conveyed to other educated people. His only tool, he says, is words.

When we convey messages to others, especially in person, we use many other tools, sometimes without even being aware of them. Our audience may not be so well educated as the readers of Locke's works or may not expect to have to use the tools available to them.

Facial expression is one of our non-verbal tools. A&W has a commercial on now that is really a movie in 30 seconds. It's based around the facial expressions of the female actor of the "couple." She deserves an award for her performance. A&W believes that her facial expressions will sell hamburgers.

We learn the various forms of facial expression and how to perform each ourselves when we are children. By adulthood, we do them naturally as we speak.

Body language is another non-verbal tool. Even position of the person delivering a message with respect to the position of the listener is important. If the person is behind a desk or their face is higher than the listener's face, the speaker is in a position of power for delivering a message. In written messages such annoying things as spelling, punctuation and use of grammar can affect how a reader interprets a message.

Written language lacks all of the easy tools of speech. Thus it opens itself to misinterpretation more than spoken messages. It's all too common for a reader to fix on one particular sentence of a written message, taking it out of context, and draw conclusions about the meaning of the whole message that are contradictory to the writer's intentions.

Years ago when I was the supervisor over many entry level employees, I gained a reputation for being the only person my colleagues knew who could dismiss an employee for incompetence and make them feel good about having to look for another job. Yet when I wrote simple notes asking that certain people do particular (and necessary) cleanup jobs, I was too often accused of "yelling" at them when my intention was anything but that.

Written messages have a different impact on people because they are managed in different parts of the brain than spoken messages. More correctly, the path taken by visual input of a written message through the eyes has many more places in which the information must be processed before it is understood, compared to the input of spoken words from a person who is facing the listener. More steps means more possibilities for errors or misinterpretations. Also more possibilities for the reader to become sidetracked on a tangent resulting from associations of certain words.

No matter what our level of education or the number of words at our disposal for speaking or writing, it would serve us well to consider not just how to word what we say to convey our message, but what unintended impact the combination of words we choose might make on our listeners or readers.

A good writer gives great importance to how his or her reader will react. A good speaker knows the reaction he or she expects and uses every verbal and body tool at hand to get that reaction.

The rest of us muddle along and wonder why so many other people are so stupid that they can't understand us.

Bill Allin
'Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems,' striving to get the words right to convey the intended message.
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