MarComedy: Don’t make me laugh

For what tickles my fancy in media, communications and life in general.

An Experiment in Interpretation – Words Matter

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I love my ipod. Rarely go anywhere without it. On the subway to work. At the gym. And so on…I guess in that respect I’m similar to anyone else who has one.

I was thinking about how some much of communication is non-verbal (most studies I’ve seen say somewhere in the neighbourhood of 90%) and started to pay attention to people I passed while I had my ipod on. Could I pick up what they were saying? How they were feeling? Could I have a coherent interaction with someone while still keeping my music going?

What prompted this was the observation that many teenagers seem to constantly have earphones on and seem to be able to interact with their peers without any trouble (I am assuming the were listening to something at the time and this isn’t a trend I’ve missed out on).

I tried this first with simple encounters: paying for something at a store; pleasantries with passers by…Not surprisingly, this was relatively easy. I suspect this is largely to do with familiarity. I know what to expect from these situations. I know the cashier at the LCBO will ask me if I have AirMiles. I know when someone approaches me at the subway and asks me question its usually to do with the direction of the train. I know what to say when ordering my morning coffee at Tim Horton’s.

I then found this article talking about how facial expression may be genetic & hereditary (see the great image of blind family members with similar facial expressions to their relatives). An evolutionary biologist quoted in the article has this to say:

As a social species, it makes sense for us to be able to read each others’ emotions to predict how they are going to behave and how they are going to respond.

It is all part of being social and living in groups. Being able to read people’s faces is very important and it makes sense that there is a hereditary component.

But there is clearly more to comprehension than just facial expression. Today, I came across this post from H&K’s Brendan Hodgson. While on a different subject, he makes a point about

the importance of reading between the lines, considering the motives and intentions that lie behind the spoken or written word, and realizing that communication is very much about examining issues from perspectives that we might not understand or even be comfortable with.

In essence, context is critical for understanding. Words have meaning based on how they are used (see the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein for tremendous insight on this subject). Coincidentally, I’m also reading Bill Bryson’s great book The Mother Tongue – English and how it got that way, where he uses the example of ‘Ok’ and the huge variety of ways that we use this word (as a noun, verb, adverb, interjection, lukewarm endorsement, generally useless filler of space…). It’s the same word but how it is used determines its meaning and interpretation.

Back to my experiment. While I could manage basic & familiar communication, I stumbled when something more complex arose – someone asking for specific directions, trash talk at the poker table, my parents asking me how my day was and so on. Based on the context, I could hazard a good guess as to what was being asked of me. But I couldn’t understand the finer points nor could I be sure of any sort of coherent and relevant response.

And my conclusion? I now take off my headphones if I want to understand or be understood. The words matter (there just happens to be a lot operating behind them).

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Written by Jonathan Dunn

October 18, 2006 at 7:57 pm

Posted in Blogroll, Language

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