The Biggest Problem in Communication Is the Illusion That It Has Taken Place

When talking to others about something I am feeling I often get well-meaning reciprocations of those feelings. Everyone feels that way I’m told. And that may be true. The problem is that I have no way of actually knowing that, and neither do they. I can use words to describe my feelings, but those words are tuned and utilized based on my specific set of life experiences. So what those words and phrases mean to me isn’t exactly the same thing to anyone else. And while my general meaning is clear, the tiny nuances are lost. It’s those tiny nuances that are important to me. It’s the tiny nuances that divide us. It’s evident enough when two people discuss a conversation they had in the past and each has a completely different idea of the substance and outcome of the conversation. How can we ever really know what another person means with their words, and even more difficult, what their thoughts are?

Just getting my thoughts out onto a page changes them in ways that seem incomprehensible to me. Thoughts in my head have meanings that the words put down permanently on the page have already lost. What I’ve just wrote turns out to be a horrible caricature of what I was just thinking. Reading my own words back I find them inadequate to the task I have asked of them. How much more so when there is another person involved? It’s really kind of amazing that we are able to communicate at all. It highlights the priority of the physical nature of our survival as biological beings over the emotional and psychological nature. Compared to thoughts and feelings physical objects are relatively easy to describe and communicate about in at least an adequate way. Telling someone to pick up the pencil and put it on the table is simple compared to describing how the pencil reminds you of a time when you were a child and a teacher yelled at you to pick up a pencil and set it on the table and now every time you see a yellow pencil you get a sick feeling of guilt. The point is that while we are social creatures our physical forms rely on physical manipulation of the world. Something that is fairly straightforward when it comes to communication. The evolution of our brains may have favored communication about physical objects over communication over our inner lives. It makes sense given how quickly we will die without physical necessities compared to social and psychological ones. But now we’ve reached a point in civilization when those social and psychological necessities have become much more important than they were in the days of our ancestors. We need to be able to reliably and accurately communicate with the other humans in our lives. Even given the tens of thousands of years of human language we still seem inadequately able to accurately read the nuances of another’s mind (and often even our own).

The only remedy that I can see currently available is practice (that is until some form of telepathy is made available). Practice in refining words in writing and speech. But as I have said even that is inadequate. As someone who aspires to communicate with written words for a living I still struggle with this. How much more so for people who don’t regularly write? But, you may say, we all speak with others all the time. That is true. Unfortunately our culture indoctrinates us into resorting to mindless small talk that conveys little to no real information. It’s all verbal packing peanuts, there only to fill the empty spaces and not disrupt the fragile contents of our egos, allowing us to remain isolated islands of thought. We are not supposed to ask any questions of importance and in return expect others not to ask them of us. Real questions require real thought and that is often not comfortable or convenient. So maybe the problem with communicating isn’t so much in the limits of language as the limits our culture has put on the thoughts and ideas that are acceptable for us to have. It’s safer not to know what the other person is thinking so as not to disrupt our own fragile mind-world. Our illusions are only safe when they are left undisturbed.

I can’t live with comfortable illusions though. I’ve never really been able to. I haven’t always known what questions to ask, but I have always had unease with the things mainstream culture expects of me. I’ve never really fit in and that alienation has only grown as I’ve gotten older. Coming to be better able to accept that as a reality for myself is the best I’ve been able to manage. I would like to live in a world where everyone questions everything around them. I would like for things to not be accepted as they are so quickly and easily. That’s not the world as it exists though. And I can’t make it that way. I can only question my own part in it and hope that it may help someone else to do the same.


For those interested the title of this post is a quote of uncertain origin. Here is a link investigating the source of the quote often incorrectly attributed to George Bernard Shaw.