Talking ≠ Communication

And 3 things you might be taking for granted about getting through to others

In my last post, “There’s a gap between doctors and patients (where words apparently go to die),” I talked about how we as doctors consistently miss the point of what patients are trying to say. (It happens vice versa too, of course, but since we’re supposed to be the experts, the bulk of the blame kind of falls on us. But I digress.)

Anyway, I promised to expand on communication, so let’s get to it. (Warning: this is a favourite subject of mine, so pardon me if I get a little excited. Also, I’ll be talking about communication in general, not just doctors and patients.)

Let’s start with what you’re doing right now, which as it turns out, I happen to know. You’re reading this post. (What did you think I was going to say?) But seriously, that’s a good place to begin.

What’s really going on when you’re reading?

Think about it. Because it’s kind of like tying shoelaces: you’re great at it, but if you had to write a step-by-step manual on it, you’d probably struggle. It comes so naturally to you that you most likely don’t really think about it anymore.

So I’ll tell you.

Right now, what you’re doing is looking at black marks on a white screen and translating them into information.

And that, my friend, is no small feat. Especially considering the speed and effortlessness with which you’re doing it. (From the start of this post to this point, you’ve done this word-by-word translation over 550 times.)

Now consider that this feat is possible because I’m using a set of 26 marks that you’re familiar with. You know it as the English alphabet and you know the two forms, capital and small letters, that it comes in. (Well, there’s the other set of Arabic numerals, but let’s not go into that now.)

Whatever you do, don’t sing the ABC song now.

Each of the marks in this set we call an alphabet has a series of associated sounds, which you also know (the ABC song, anyone?). And as you know, we call these marks “letters,” group them together in specific combinations we call “words,” and further combine those words into “sentences,” following sometimes-confusing rules that we call “grammar.” And of course we learn to make the sounds that correspond to those letters and words as well and call that “speech.”

You know all this (even if you never really thought about it in this particular way). If you’re like most people, however, learning it all took a good bit of your early years. (Especially that dratted grammar that continues to trip some grown people up.)

And yet, we cannot afford to be ignorant of these sounds and these marks, because without them, we would be unable to communicate with one another, or even talk to ourselves in our own heads (since language, it turns out, is quite helpful to thinking clearly).

And that’s my first main point in this post:

#1. Communication is how we connect with one another, and it’s based on symbols.

That’s huge. Without the ability to communicate, one we’d really all be islands, each individual mind forever individual. It’s communication that makes it possible for us to take our thoughts out of our heads and transfer them to others. (Like I’m doing at this very instant.)

But it’s not enough, of course, simply to possess a set of symbols.

Any new parent can tell you how frustrating it is to be unable to decipher what their newborn’s cries mean. (And you can imagine how the babies themselves feel at being unable to get through.)

And even if you’re no parent, you may have felt the barely describable relief at finding someone who can speak your language in a place where no one seemed able to. But it’s really the same issue in both cases: the failure of communication because of a lack of agreed on-symbols.

Also, as we all know, should you desire to communicate in public spaces, but not with the public, you simply do what all young people and gang members instinctively understand: develop your own set of symbols in speech and writing known and shared only among you and your group.

(And who hasn’t had the misfortune of using a slang wrongly — or as in the 21st century, an emoji!)

So symbols are not enough: for us to communicate, we and the person we are trying to communicate with must have a shared set of symbols. And using the wrong symbol might be worse than having none to use!

Which brings me to my second main point:

#2. Communication depends on a set of agreed-on symbols between the parties involved.

So far, I’ve been speaking of only two kinds of communication: speech and writing.

There’s a major one I’ve left out, and it’s possibly even more important than the first two: non-verbal communication, aka “body language.” The way your face is. The way you smile. (Or frown.) The way you move your hands, your feet, your body. Even your silence says something.

In other words: and this is point number 3…

#3. You’re ALWAYS communicating.

Sorry, but that’s really the truth. Which means we might want to think very deliberately about exactly what it is we are communicating, since we’re going to anyway, whether we want to or not.

And yes, the first two points equally apply to non-verbal communication. Anyone who has travelled to another culture — which is probably most people reading this — knows the terrible embarrassment that comes from doing something that communicates something absolutely different from what they had in mind! But when you think about it, that’s simply the result of trying to communicate when each party has different sets of symbols.

I’m sure you can see how far-reaching are the implications of all this, from friendships to marriages to work and business and governments and all kinds of leaders. And of course, to doctors and patients.

But let me close by making one last point (although I’ll need another post to expand on that)…

The next time you hear someone saying “Communication is important,” I hope you remember that it’s more than just talking.

P.S. If you enjoyed this, please hit the green heart to like it. Also, you might enjoy this too…

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Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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