Communication is Difficult
Why is communication so difficult?
Sometimes I will talk to somebody, and think that I’m expressing myself really clearly when I’m not. I seem to make perfect sense. Yet when I hear what the other person says in response, it is obvious that they heard something quite different from what I thought I said. What seemed so clear and easily understandable to me, is apparently quite opaque to the other person.
It happens all the time, and not just to me. For example, I frequently observe Christians having an argument over some point of doctrine. One person puts forward an idea X. The other person actually agrees with X but is concerned about the consequences of taking idea X too far, so they explain some of the flaws with X. Now, the first person is fully aware of the flaws of idea X, but they still think it’s a good idea, so they reiterate the good points about X. To the second person, it sounds like the first person didn’t understand the dire consequences of taking X too far, so they restate their understanding of X’s flaws. And so on and so forth. Both of them agree that X is a good idea but shouldn’t be taken too far. Yet a heated argument ensues. Over nothing.
We make assumptions about things that cause us no end of trouble. It happens with married couples all the time. For example, Eleanor asks her husband Edward to put the washing out on the line. Edward goes and hangs out the washing thinking what a good husband he is for helping Eleanor out. He hangs out the washing with great care because he knows Eleanor is rather particular about the washing. Each shirt is pegged precisely away from the next garment. Every sock is folded exactly half-way along its length. He even plans his garment placement so that the weight is evenly distributed around clothesline, thus preserving its structural integrity. He fully expects Eleanor to beam with pleasure at his obvious care and consideration. And yet, when Eleanor comes out to view his handiwork, she is horrified. Why? Because Edward pegged all the shirts to the line instead of hanging them from coat-hangers.
How could Edward not know that shirts go on hangers? Hanging them on the line leaves a crease and peg marks that Eleanor has to iron out, adding to the mountain of work she already has to do. She had even put the hangers very obviously next to the peg bucket before he started. Why on earth would she put them there, if not for hanging the shirts? It’s just so obvious. Does he not think? And so poor Edward is crushed and resolves never to help with the housework again. Eleanor consequently becomes convinced that Edward is both lazy and mentally deficient.
All these kinds of problems occur, even when people grow up speaking the same language, living in the same culture, walking around similar places. It becomes even more complicated when people speak different languages and come from different cultures. Sometimes I wonder that we ever manage to communicate at all.
Why is communication so difficult? And what the heck does that have to do with epistemology or theology? This is the introduction to a few thoughts I’m writing down about things I have been reading for my PhD. Let me know what you think