On Communication

I’m currently taking online Master’s coursework for a degree in Adult Education with a specialization in Training and Performance Improvement. Many of the courses have addressed the issue of communication, the use of symbols to convey ideas. This is a complicated process by anyone’s standards.

Words, whether spoken or written, are just symbols. They have no meaning unless we as a group assign meaning to them. A single event or object can have multiple symbols to represent it. “Rock” and “stone,” for example, both refer to a hunk of mineral-based matter. You’ll find them in abundance in the “dirt” or “soil” in the part of Texas where I live. Likewise, you can have one symbol used for many ideas. If I tell you something is “cool,” you wouldn’t know if I’m referring to temperature or desirability or aloofness without more context.

If verbal communication weren’t complicated enough, you can throw nonverbal cues into the mix. The 2009-2011 TV show Lie to Me was based on the premise that body language could be interpreted to figure out what a person meant, but even then, there are ample opportunities to misread someone or to misunderstand what the person meant. For example, am I crossing my arms because I’m annoyed and defensive or because someone cranked the AC enough to use the room to hang beef?

People often try to control their body language or their words to hide their true intention, the whole point of Lie to Me. According to Adams and Galanes (2012), if there’s a difference, people tend to believe what the nonverbal cues are saying.

Perhaps that’s why written communication is harder to do well, more prone to miscommunication. There’s no nonverbal channel. If someone makes a comment on social media, “Hey want to go bungie jumping?” and I answer, “Oh, you bet,” the reader can’t tell if that’s actually “Dream on, dummy” or “Yeah! When and where?” Emoticons can go a long way toward fixing some of the problems, and some people have invented tags like [ sarc ] [ /sarc ] to indicate their emotions, but those still leave huge gaps.

In the end, perfect understanding might not be possible, and with all the trouble establishing shared meaning for our symbols, it’s a wonder we can communicate at all.

conversation chip griffin 2008 flickr creative commons

(c) 2008 Chip Griffin // Retrieved from Flickr under Creative Commons


Adams, K., & Galanes, G. J. (2012). Communicating in groups: Applications and skills.  New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.


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