The Language of Words

We use words to communicate, to exchange facts, thoughts, feelings. Words are clearly essential tools, are generally effective and yet have numerous drawbacks. Words are supposed to correspond to various meanings, a sort of “mapping” between them and what they represent: a fact, a thought or an emotion/sentiment. Such mapping is indeed quite reductive: the word “house” will never fully represent the complexity of a true “house”. Words are only successful if their intended purpose is achieved, that is the fact, thought or feeling is properly exchanged and understood by the other person. This is not a simple task and requires constant training.

It is so easy to fail in properly communicating with words. By talking to ourselves more than to the other, by not checking that the other has understood what was meant. By assuming the best case scenario of a successful exchange, while in fact the most likely result is some communication failure. How can we get better at it?

First, by making sure that our intended purpose is achieved, that the other acknowledges his/her understanding. Second,  by practicing regularly. By exchanging more often on all sorts of topics, including some very intimate ones. Nothing like practice to help achieve mastery. Third, by encouraging others to help us improve. ” Am I clear?” ” Did  i confuse you?” Unfortunately, the measurement of accuracy, i.e. verifying that the message has gone through, has a cost. It slows the flow  and reestablish some distance with the other. Not optimal!

Conversations we observe but cannot hear are great tools to study some of the mechanical aspects of expression: heads shake, nod, hands move, fingers dance, eyebrows rise or fall, gestures freeze, and on, and on. Clearly something involved is going on. It feels to me like some row boat is being navigated towards some shore, while elements such as winds, waves whirl around it. The boat is our self, this thing we are and have, and feeds itself with morality, joy, fear, love, freedom. Row boats don’t advance straight: right, left, right, left. Better not experience leaks!

Let me now focus on the exchange of emotions, which I believe to be even more complex than the exchange of facts or thoughts. Many of us hide our emotions as something not to share with (or impose on) others. Timidity, shyness, shame , fear to embarrass or be embarrassed, to divulge ugly parts of us are all impediments to the divulging of our emotions. And yet, the sharing of emotions is possibly a most essential need of ours, the only mean we have to combat our affective loneliness. Often the source of a wonderful river called “love”. So it goes that we engage in conversations of facts and thoughts while our true goal is to share emotions. Or we talk words, when the real show is in the underlying emotions of the participants, their core! How can we read the real show hidden behind an entertaining yet diverting conversation? How can we go behind the surface  and become fluent in the superior language of underlying emotions? The ultimate true fluency!

Let’s momentarily take foreign language fluency as a proxy for emotional fluency. How does one become fluent in a foreign language. We are fluent in our own language i.e. there is a seamless expression and reception of words to communicate meanings. That fluency has come from extensive  repetition of words and correction when mistakes were incurred, until “recognition patterns” were established. Gradually words were channelled to their correct meanings because we excluded as wrong words that did not sound right. We monitored the success of our words and corrected as needed. Similarly we become fluent in foreign languages by establishing an effective recognition pattern between words that sound right and words that don’t. Returning to our goal of fluency in emotions communication, we need to constantly monitor whatever we can glean of the emotional flow between us and others, and start developing recognition patterns of words that activate various emotional responses or flows between us and others. Gradually, the conversation should switch to the superior reading and expressing of our true emotions. Good luck with that!

Last but not least. Let’s all remember the etymology of the word communication: make common. Originally, communication meant find and share something in common. It did not mean exchange digital bits, it did not mean antagonize, polarize, fight. It might be a good idea to return to the original meaning of communication.

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