“…or let us suppose that a man has asked a woman, Do you love me, and she remains silent, simply looking at him, sphinx-like and distant, refusing to utter that No that will destroy him, or that Yes which will destroy both of them, then we must conclude that the world would be a better place if everyone were content with what they say, without expecting any reply and, moreover, neither demanding or desiring one.” Jose Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon
The power of speech resides in others, it could be said. The audience for our communication is inspiration, guide, and keeper of our happiness. Don’t think this is overblown language for the sake of style or drama. The response to what we communicate matters more to us than what we communicate.
Let’s talk this through. But, let me first say that these words here and to follow are not about those who write, by the by. Let us open up our audience today to include not only writers but readers, their neighbors, their neighbors’ neighbors, fellow passengers, fellow students from long ago, immediate family, distant family, disownable family, friends, Romans, countrymen and women, and you. So, the human community.
Again, the response to what we communicate matters more to us than what we communicate. It’s a rare person that can share with others, get an unsatisfactory response, and not be fazed. Someone transcendent, perhaps, or someone with more hubris than is bearable for the general population. Most of us, though, we need to close the loop of what we say or write by receiving a nod, a smile, a gesture, an acknowledgement of existence. These are what matter to us, and we will go through a lot to get it if it comes quickly.
It’s incredibly frustrating that the humanity’s greatest mutation, speech, is categorically linked with a far inferior skill of ours, the ability to listen. At one point I’m sure that both skills were uncovered, explored, and mastered with equal ability. Not now. Just as happens with every communication woe, I’m sure we could blame the modern age, but I suspect it’s more than the advent of iPods that have hurt our listening skills.
If the best of our language gets no response, we’ll go with more familiar speech until we get the sought-after response. As a result, while we partake in the veritable miracle of speech every time we speak, we so infrequently do something amazing with it. It’s not a stretch to accept that we derive more satisfaction from talking than listening. It’s unfortunate we’re not split better, with half the population better at the one, and half at the other. Some say women listen better than men, and that older folk listen better than younger folk, but on the whole we export much better than we import. We’re an entire species that loves to throw a ball but not to catch it.
So, just like water taking the shortest path possible, we stay very familiar to get the quickest result. Every time we speak, we become unique contributors to the history of communication, able to put together combinations of words that have never been uttered, yet we put our value on that which we know for the sake of quick wins. Part of it is comfort, like only dancing to songs that we know the words to. The more modern we become, the more staid we become. Part of it is predictability. It’s why successful politicians rely on sound bites, and possibly why miracles are so infrequent; anything too rambunctious too often upsets our equilibrium. And part of it is laziness. There is a reason more people have seen every episode of According to Jim than have read one Shakespeare play.
Where do we go from here? I’d like to suggest we do something about it. We have to begin with ourselves. I write to you because I care about this, but surely also because I want recognition for these thoughts. I am not above the problems I cite here. But I’m willing to try harder, to work more to reach not the most possible people, but the best possible people. It’s basic lessons of compassion, empathy, and doing the right thing but this time, the cause is not social justice, gender rights, or general fairness. It’s more about having richer experiences and living in a fuller way. A words version of think global, act local, maybe.
This is for everyone tired of cliche, normalcy, and finishing sentences. This is for souls who are not so much lost as restless, looking for a new jolt. This is for everyone who wants to feel the way about language as we do with a familiar touch, or a memory of some joyous past moment. It’s within us to challenge pedestrian speech and easy language by not acknowledging it until we get something better. Make communicators try harder to get your approval. Make listeners understand. They will adapt. Start now.
Still not convinced? Hear what: Imagine witnessing the most amazing sentence ever uttered, and your life changing because of it. Absorb this thought. Understand, then, that this most amazing sentence is not a universal experience, but a singular occurrence between the communicator and you. This is the joy of being part of this community–getting to be an individual while embracing the group, making permanent connections to our fellow beings–and it is available to all of us. We just have to work for it. To be touched by the hand of humanity is a smaller experience that being touched by the hand of God, but it is more satisfying. Anyone can be blessed by the omnipresent. No one can be blessed to be changed by these certain words at those certain times in our two lives except you.
Thanks, Owen! That's a nice distinction–speech without consideration for the recipient is just expression.
Thanks for this beautiful tribute to language–all aspects of it. Many of us, myself included, forget the listening part of communication all too often. I love the idea of one sentence being a "singular experiences" that changes you… it happens in movies. Why can't it happen in real life, too?
Thanks, Frau Editor-in-Chief! I think that this actually does happen to all of us at times in our lives–we're just not attuned to the value of the right listener at the right time. There's value in looking back at turning points in our lives, and tracing back to see which of them were spawned from us completing a thought and getting what we needed to act.
…and this is the inherent value of g-chat. it records and archives all conversations to be readily available at a search button's notice! to wit, all conversations should be held via g-chat.
I have to admit that I'm guilty of this sin: talking without listening. I do my best thinking orally, working through things verbally, regardless of the listener's participation. I'm not sure if my wife is a really good listener or just quietly ignoring me, but, either way I appreciate it.
Hey disperse, we're all guilty of this sin. I wonder if the people we consider good listeners in our lives are just quiet and patient, or if they actually engage us? There's a fine line, and in the midst of rapid lives, we so rarely observe the unobvious. Thanks very much for your comment.
personally (well, universally), it's probably a balance of both. no one can actively listen at all times. but i've worked hard at being a good listener! i'm just often too stressed/preoccupied/narcissistic/tired to "go to work" that day.
(more of a reply to mcknight, but…oh well)
As much as I'd like to disagree that communicators highly concern themselves with the recipient's reaction, I have to admit that I'm way too hung-up on others' perceptions of me. I hate to admit that, but it's true.
Lindi, I'm sure you're not alone here. The basis of our government, financial system, and most religions begin with the self–so why shouldn't that be our focus? I just wanted to remind all of us, me included, to occasionally remember our communication is part of a whole. I appreciate your thoughts and honesty.
Great work Jason. I like the last paragraph very much, and I was thinking of some of the more powerful sentences I've read from favorite poems and novels. And I was pondering the collective feelings/emotions/thoughts that people might share when reading the same thing. Obviously the same sentence can mean so many different things to so many different people. But I often think about what the author wanted the reader to come away with, and whether there is a "right" interpretation. Of course, I almost always think I'm right ;-), but I wonder what it means when two people really DO think/feel pretty much the same way about what was communicated to them.
Also, other forms of communication and entertainment in particular came to mind…such as television and film, where being surrounded by a community (or knowing that a community is witnessing what's being communicated simultaneously) and wondering if that impacts how we interpret a given piece of art/communication.
For instance, I disliked Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (the movie) because I watched it alone about five minutes after finishing the book (which I loved), and was obsessed with the minor details they left out in the film.
Then I watched it again with my brother…and actually ended up loving the movie and thinking it was damn good despite what it cut.
Obviously, this strays from your original point and I just like rambling about Harry Potter.
But still…I find my own interpretation/experience with something that's communicated TO me can be heavily influenced and impacted by who or what is around me during the communication, and maybe I'm just easily distracted, or too concerned with what other people think of things, but I find that ridiculously interesting.
Jason, well done.
We,as a society, very rarely think about what language actually means. A wake up call for all.