We Are All Terrible Communicators

The more I study Japanese, the more I realize how bad English translations are, not entirely at the fault of the translators. The languages are just so different and the nuances simply aren’t conveyed the same way. But more than things being lost in translation, I am learning just how much is lost in everyday communication, when the language of the speaker and listener is the same. In the anime Seikaisuru Kado, this idea of miscommunication and loss of information through language is used during the communication of humans with the higher dimensional being Yaha-kui zaShunina. He explains that no matter how effective language is, it can never communicate 100% of the intended information. Without a full understanding of an idea, miscommunication will certainly occur. As one of the main characters Shindo tries to communicate with him and find proper terminology, Yaha-ku zaShunina (I really don’t want to write this name out any more) often gives out scores for how accurately the information was understood, constantly noting that their communication is imperfect.

Nisio Isin of the Monogatari/Zaregoto series actually has an interesting quote on the matter of communication as well

People can’t express their thoughts a hundred percent, and what does get expressed isn’t going to make it across a hundred percent; in practice, you’re at sixty percent for each if things go well, which would mean the audience of a work gets only thirty-six percent of what the author is thinking. The other sixty-four percent is made up of misunderstandings.

Granted, the context of the quote is about authors commenting on their own work and how different people inevitably end up interpreting the same work differently (a topic that perhaps deserves its own post). However, in the context of communication in general, I find the quote to be equally relevant. Perhaps the numbers are a bit too arbitrary, but the basic sentiment holds true. Some people are skilled at expressing themselves with words, but many of us are not. How often do you struggle to find the right words only to realize you still chose the wrong ones? How often do you think someone meant one thing, only for them to counter with “that’s not what I meant”? Additionally, language itself is not perfect. Sometimes the perfect words still fall short of your intended meaning, and sometimes the clearest words will still be misinterpreted by people with a different understanding of how those words are used. I mean, we live in a world where the usage of a word like covfefe can evolve overnight.

Communication is arguably the most important thing when interacting with other people, but it takes far more effort than we like to admit, and that’s largely because so much of it involves miscommunication. Even so, disagreements are often attributed to differences in opinions, ignorance of opposing parties, or even stupidity. And sometimes these may very well be true. Everyone is ignorant about different things; we can’t all understand every topic. As harsh as it sounds, some people are less intelligent than others and can’t comprehend complex topics as easily. But if we are to acknowledge the miscommunication that arises from both a speaker’s inability to fully express their thoughts and a listener’s inability to fully interpret those words, I think we will find that many arguments are simple (or perhaps, complex) misunderstandings. Even how a word is used and interpreted differently can cause these kinds of misunderstandings.

Take for example, the term “Christian.” It should be a word that clearly denotes devotion to Christ and belief in the Gospel message. Yet somehow, it can mean a million different things. Which denomination are you? Do you go to church? Do you hate anime? Do you celebrate the idea of sinners suffering in hell? Do you believe in Christ? (I have had “Christians” tell me that their denomination does not…) A great deal of clarity is required to determine what kind of Christian you are talking about; by itself, it means almost nothing. People have all kinds of different ideas of what a given word means to them. Even though language has dictionary definitions of words, the fact remains that definitions change based on how we choose to use words, and that flux is further dependent on things like culture, beliefs, and personal experiences.

If a single word can cause confusion without follow up clarity, you can begin to imagine how many problems can arise with the added complications of context (or lack thereof), tone (which can be both helpful or detrimental), cultural differences, and worst of all, things being left unsaid entirely due to whatever human emotions we have like embarrassment or distrust. Unfortunately, we take language and communication for granted and more often than not assume what we interpreted is true, simply because the words have a clear meaning to us; in fact, this is the very crux of miscommunication as there is no reason to doubt out internal interpretation of what we hear. It is surprisingly easy for this misstep to snowball into a back and forth argument that sounds like the two are talking about the same thing but in their heads, they really aren’t.

I suppose no matter how much I write, you are likely to misunderstand some of the things I am trying to say, making for a rather ironic post. When we consider that the original quote from Nisio was in Japanese, we have an added layer of lost information and probably a pun or two because what else would you expect from Nisio? Even so, if we were to score ourselves on how accurately we interpret words around us, I think an assessment of 36% as an overall average is not too far from the truth. Especially when it comes to abstract things like how or why you are feeling a certain way or why your opinion on something is the way it is, it simply isn’t possible for language to communicate these things with 100% accuracy.

It is only natural, then, that Christians are just as vulnerable to this as much as anyone else. Yet, far too many Christians are too quick to judge what others are saying without considering that miscommunication is possible. Whether this is trying to reach out to others or listening to your pastor on Sunday morning, we internalize what we perceive to be true without questioning how accurate those perceptions are. It is so easy to misunderstand the intent of what is said because of these issues of communication, our own prejudices, and the influences of our own desires on interpretation. This extends to every aspect of our lives, and it is dangerously easy to think nothing is being misunderstood. As Christians (or even as humans), we need to make sure we understand the feelings and thoughts of those around us if we want to properly build community, and that can only be obtained through proper communication.

Therefore, I want to challenge everyone to critically think and question your own perceptions of everything you hear around you and in turn, realize how poor at communication everyone really is. The only real solution to poor communication is to communicate more with an open mind and an earnest desire to understand others.  Especially as Christians who are called to love others, it is imperative that we do not act on misunderstandings. In order to truly build a bridge between Christians and non-believers, it is necessary to have clear and precise communication, something that is often not addressed completely when Christians speak of outreach and missions. Communication is hard, and we will never truly get over this barrier; however, the more aware we make ourselves of this problem and educate others on it, the better we can close the gap of misunderstandings.

 

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