Tag: Communication

Language: Why We Hear More Than Words

It’s a classic complaint in relationships, especially romantic ones: “She said she was okay with me forgetting her birthday! Then why is she throwing dishes in the kitchen? Are the two things related? I wish I had a translator for my spouse. What is going on?”

The answer: Extreme was right, communication is more than words. It’s how those words are said, the tone, the order, even the choice of a particular word. It’s multidimensional.

In their book, Meaning and Relevance, Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber explore the aspects of communication that are beyond the definitions of the words that we speak but are still encoded in the words themselves.

Consider the following example:

Peter got angry and Mary left.

Mary left and Peter got angry.

We can instantly see that these two sentences, despite having exactly the same words, do not mean the same thing. The first one has us thinking, wow, Peter must get angry often if Mary leaves to avoid his behavior. Maybe she’s been the recipient of one too many tantrums and knows that there’s nothing she can do to diffuse his mood. The second sentence suggests that Peter wants more from Mary. He might have a crush on her! Same words – totally different context.

Human language is not a code. True codes have a one-to-one relationship with meaning. One sound, one definition. This is what we see with animals.

Wilson and Sperber explain that “coded communication works best when emitter and receiver share exactly the same code. Any difference between the emitter’s and receiver’s codes is a possible source of error in the communication process.” For animals, any evolutionary mutations that affected the innate code would be counter-adaptive. A song-bird one note off key is going to have trouble finding a mate.

Not so for humans. We communicate more than the definitions of our words would suggest. (Steven Pinker argues language itself as a DNA-level instinct.) And we decode more than the words spoken to us. This is inferential communication, and it means that we understand not only the words spoken, but the context in which they are spoken. Contrary to the languages of other animals, which are decidedly less ambiguous, human language requires a lot of subjective interpretation.

This is probably why we can land in a country where we don’t speak the language and can’t read the alphabet, yet get the gist of what the hotel receptionist is telling us. We can find our room, and know where the breakfast is served in the morning. We may not understand her words, but we can comprehend her tone and make inferences based on the context.

Wilson and Sperber argue that mutations in our inferential abilities do not negatively impact communication and potentially even enhance it. Essentially, because our human language is not simply a one-to-one code because more can be communicated beyond the exact representations of certain words, we can easily adapt to changes in communication and interpretation that may evolve in our communities.

For one thing, we can laugh at more than physical humor. Words can send us into stitches. Depending on how they are conveyed, the tone, the timing, the expressions that come along with them, we can find otherwise totally innocuous words hysterical.

Remember Abbott and Costello?

Who’s on first.”
“What?”
“No, what’s on second.”

Consider Irony

Irony is a great example of how powerfully we can communicate context with a few simple words.

I choose my words as indicators of a more complex thought that may include emotions, opinions, biases, and these words will help you infer this entire package. And one of my goals as the communicator is to make it as easy as possible for you to get the meaning I’m intending to convey.

Irony is more than just stating the opposite. There must be an expectation of that opposite in at least some of the population. And choosing irony is more of a commentary on that group. Wilson and Sperber argue that “what irony essentially communicates is neither the proposition literally expressed not the opposite of that proposition, but an attitude to this proposition and to those who might hold or have held it.”

For example

When Mary says, after a boring party, ‘That was fun’, she is neither asserting literally that the party was fun nor asserting ‘ironically’ that the party was boring. Rather, she is expressing an attitude of scorn towards (say) the general expectation among the guests that the party would be fun.

This is a pretty complex linguistic structure. It allows us to communicate our feelings on cultural norms fairly succinctly. Mary says ‘That was fun’. Three little words. And I understand that she hated the party, couldn’t wait to get out of there, feels distant from the other party-goers and is rejecting that whole social scene. Very powerful!

Irony works because it is efficient. To communicate the same information without irony involves more sentences. And my desire as a communicator is always to express myself in the most efficient way possible to my listener.

Wilson and Sperber conclude that human language developed and became so powerful because of two unique cognitive abilities of humans, language and the power to attribute mental states to others. We look for context for the words we hear. And we are very proficient at absorbing this context to infer meaning.

The lesson? If you want to understand reality, don't be pedantic.

Why the Printing Press and the Telegraph Were as Impactful as the Internet

What makes a communications technology revolutionary? One answer to this is to ask whether it fundamentally changes the way society is organized. This can be a very hard question to answer, because true fundamental changes alter society in such a way that it becomes difficult to speak of past society without imposing our present understanding.

In her seminal work, The Printing Press as An Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein argues just that:

When ideas are detached from the media used to transmit them, they are also cut off from the historical circumstances that shape them, and it becomes difficult to perceive the changing context within which they must be viewed.

Today we rightly think of the internet and the mobile phone, but long ago, the printing press and the telegraph both had just as heavy an impact on the development of society.

Printing Press

Thinking of the time before the telegraph, when communications had to be hand delivered, is quaint. Trying to conceive the world before the uniformity of communication brought about by the printing press is almost unimaginable.

Eisenstein argues that the printing press “is of special historical significance because it produced fundamental alterations in prevailing patterns of continuity and change.”

Before the printing press there were no books, not in the sense that we understand them. There were manuscripts that were copied by scribes, which contained inconsistencies and embellishments, and modifications that suited who the scribe was working for. The printing press halted the evolution of symbols: For the first time maps and numbers were fixed.

Furthermore, because pre-press scholars had to go to manuscripts, Eisenstein says we should “recognize the novelty of being able to assemble diverse records and reference guides, and of being able to study them without having to transcribe them at the same time” that was afforded by the printing press.

This led to new ways of being able to compare and thus develop knowledge, by reducing the friction of getting to the old knowledge:

More abundantly stocked bookshelves obviously increased opportunities to consult and compare different texts. Merely by making more scrambled data available, by increasing the output of Aristotelian, Alexandrian and Arabic texts, printers encouraged efforts to unscramble these data.

Eisenstein argues that many of the great thinkers of the 16th century, such as Descartes and Montaigne, would have been unlikely to have produced what they did without the changes wrought by the printing press. She says of Montaigne, “that he could see more books by spending a few months in his Bordeaux tower-study than earlier scholars had seen after a lifetime of travel.”

The printing press increased the speed of communication and the spread of knowledge: Far less man hours were needed to turn out 50 printed books than 50 scribed manuscripts.

Telegraph

Henry Ford famously said of life before the car “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses“. This sentiment could be equally applied to the telegraph, a communications technology that came about 400 years after the printing press.

Before the telegraph, the speed of communication was dependent on the speed of the physical object doing the transporting – the horse, or the ship. Societies were thus organized around the speed of communication available to them, from the way business was conducted and wars were fought to the way interpersonal communication was conducted.

Let's consider, for example, the way the telegraph changed the conduct of war.

Prior to the telegraph, countries shared detailed knowledge of their plans with their citizens in order to boost morale, knowing that their plans would arrive at the enemy the same time their ships did. Post-telegraph, communications could arrive far faster than soldiers: This was something to consider!

In addition, as Tom Standage considers in his book The Victorian Internet, the telegraph altered the command structure in battle. “For who was better placed to make strategic decisions: the commander at the scene or his distant superiors?”

The telegraph brought changes similar in many ways to the printing press: It allowed for an accumulation of knowledge and increased the availability of this knowledge; more people had access to more information.

And society was forever altered as the new speed of communication made it fundamentally impossible to not use the telegraph, just as it is near impossible not to use a mobile phone or the Internet today.

Once the telegraph was widespread, there was no longer a way to do business without using it. Having up to the minute stock quotes changed the way businesses evaluated their holdings. Being able to communicate with various offices across the country created centralization and middle management. These elements became part of doing business so that it became nonsensical to talk about developing any aspect of business independent of the effect of electronic communication.

A Final Thought on Technology Uptake

One can argue that the more revolutionary an invention is, the slower the initial uptake into society, as society must do a fair amount of reorganizing to integrate the invention.

Such was the case for both the telegraph and printing press, as they allowed for things that were never before possible. Not being possible, they were rarely considered. Being rarely considered, there wasn't a large populace pining for them to happen. So when new options presented themselves, no one was rushing to embrace them, because there was no general appreciation of their potential. This is, of course, a fundamental aspect of revolutionary technology. Everyone has to figure out how (and why) to use it.

In The Victorian Internet, Standage says of William Cooke and Samuel Morse, the British and American inventors, respectively, of the telegraph:

[They] had done the impossible and constructed working telegraphs. Surely the world would fall at their feet. Building the prototypes, however, turned out to be the easy part. Convincing people of their significance was far more of a challenge.

It took years for people to see advantages with the telegraph. Even after the first lines were built, and the accuracy and speed of the communications they could carry verified, Morse realized that “everybody still thought of the telegraph as a novelty, as nothing more than an amusing subject for a newspaper article, rather than the revolutionary new form of communication that he envisaged.”

The new technology might confer great benefits, but it took a lot of work building the infrastructure, both physical and mental, to take any advantage of them.

The printing press faced similar challenges. In fact, books printed from Gutenberg until 1501 have their own term, incunabula, which reflects the transition from manuscript to book. Eisenstein writes: “Printers and scribes copied each other’s products for several decades and duplicated the same texts for the same markets during the age of incunabula.”

The momentum took a while to build. When it did, the changes were remarkable.

But looking at these two technologies serves as a reminder of what revolutionary means in this context: The use by and value to society cannot be anticipated. Therefore, great and unpredictable shifts are caused when they are adopted and integrated into everyday life.

Memory and the Printing Press

You probably know that Gutenberg invented the printing press. You probably know it was pretty important. You may have heard some stuff about everyone being able to finally read the Bible without a priest handy. But here's a point you might not be familiar with: The printing press changed why, and consequently what, we remember.

Before the printing press, memory was the main store of human knowledge. Scholars had to go to find books, often traveling around from one scriptoria to another. They couldn’t buy books. Individuals did not have libraries. The ability to remember was integral to the social accumulation of knowledge.

Thus, for centuries humans had built ways to remember out of pure necessity. Because knowledge wasn’t fixed, remembering content was the only way to access it. Things had to be known in a deep, accessible way as Elizabeth Eisenstein argues in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change:

As learning by reading took on new importance, the role played by mnemonic aids was diminished. Rhyme and cadence were no longer required to preserve certain formulas and recipes. The nature of the collective memory was transformed.

In the Church, for example, Eisenstein talks of a multimedia approach to remembering the bible. As a manuscript, it was not widely available, not even to many church representatives; the stories of the bible were often pictorially represented in the churches themselves. Use of images, both physically and mentally, was critical to storing knowledge in memory: they were used as a tool to allow one to create extensive “memory palaces” enabling the retention of knowledge.

Not only did printing eliminate many functions previously performed by stone figures over portals and stained glass in windows, but it also affected less tangible images by eliminating the need for placing figures and objects in imaginary niches located in memory theatres.

Thus, in an age before the printing press, bits of knowledge were associated with other bits of knowledge not because they complemented each other, or allowed for insights, but merely so they could be retained.

…the heavy reliance on memory training and speech arts, combined with the absence of uniform conventions for dating and placing [meant that] classical images were more likely to be placed in niches in ‘memory theatres’ than to be assigned a permanent location in a fixed past.

In our post on memory palaces, we used the analogy of a cow and a steak. To continue with the analogy used there, imagining that your partner asks you to pick up steak for dinner. To increase your chances of remembering the request, you envision a cow sitting on the front porch. When you mind-walk through your palace, you see this giant cow sitting there, perhaps waving at you (so unlike a cow!), causing you to think, ‘Why is that cow there–oh yeah, pick up steak for dinner’.

Before the printing press, it wasn’t just about picking up dinner. It was all of our knowledge. Euclid's Elements and Aristotle's Politics. The works of St. Augustine and Seneca. These works were shared most often orally, passing from memory to memory. Thus memory was not as much about remembering in the ages of scribes, as it was about preserving.

Consequently, knowledge was far less shared, and then only to those who could understand it and recall it.

To be preserved intact, techniques had to be entrusted to a select group of initiates who were instructed not only in special skills but also in the ‘mysteries’ associated with them. Special symbols, rituals, and incantations performed the necessary function of organizing data, laying out schedules, and preserving techniques in easily memorized forms.

Anyone who's played the game “Telephone” knows the problem: As knowledge is passed on, over and over, it gets transformed, sometimes distorted. This needed to be guarded against, and sometimes couldn't be. As there was no accessible reference library for knowledge, older texts were prized because they were closer to the originals.

Not only could more be learned from retrieving an early manuscript than from procuring a recent copy but the finding of lost texts was the chief means of achieving a breakthrough in almost any field.

Almost incomprehensible today, “Energies were expended on the retrieval of ancient texts because they held the promise of finding so much that still seemed new and untried.” Only by finding older texts could scholars hope to discover the original, unaltered sources of knowledge.

With the advent of the printing press, images and words became something else. Because they were now repeatable, they became fixed. No longer individual interpretations designed for memory access, they became part of the collective.

The effects of this were significant.

Difficulties engendered by diverse Greek and Arabic expressions, by medieval Latin abbreviations, by confusion between Roman letters and numbers, by neologisms, copyists’ errors and the like were so successfully overcome that modern scholars are frequently absent-minded about the limitations on progress in the mathematical sciences which scribal procedures imposed. … By the seventeenth century, Nature’s language was being emancipated from the old confusion of tongues. Diverse names for flora and fauna became less confusing when placed beneath identical pictures. Constellations and landmasses could be located without recourse to uncertain etymologies, once placed on uniform maps and globes. … The development of neutral pictorial and mathematical vocabularies made possible a large-scale pooling of talents for analyzing data, and led to the eventual achievement of a consensus that cut across all the old frontiers.

A key component of this was that apprentices and new scholars could consult books and didn’t have to exclusively rely on the memories of their superiors.

An updated technical literature enabled young men in certain fields of study to circumvent master-disciple relationships and to surpass their elders at the same time. Isaac Newton was still in his twenties when he mastered available mathematical treatises, beginning with Euclid and ending with an updated edition of Descartes. In climbing ‘on the shoulders of giants’ he was not re-enacting the experience of twelfth-century scholars for whom the retrieval of Euclid’s theorems had been a major feat.

Before the printing press, a scholar could spend his lifetime looking for a copy of Euclid’s Elements and never find them, thus having to rely on how the text was encoded in the memories of the scholars he encountered.

After the printing press, memory became less critical to knowledge. And knowledge became more widely dispersed as the reliance on memory being required for interpretation and understanding diminished. And with that, the collective power of the human mind was multiplied.

If you liked this post, check out our series on memory, starting with the advantages of our faulty memory, and continuing to the first part on our memory's frequent errors.

Carl Braun on Communicating Like a Grown-Up

“Man is a gregarious animal. We work in herds, in teams. The bear can do exactly as he pleases, for he works alone. We do not work alone. We depend throughout our lives on the goodwill of other men. If a man does not learn to bend, to be friendly and considerate, and to respect his brother’s ego—in things both big and little—he’ll find himself disliked and locked up in his own unhappiness.”
— C.F. Braun

***

Carl Franklin (C.F.) Braun graduated from Stanford with an engineering degree in 1907 and within two years had opened his own engineering firm. Braun’s company would go on to manufacture and engineer products ranging from water filters to petroleum processing plants; large, complicated projects involving manpower and precision. He eventually employed 6,000 people and built over 250 petrochemical plants, well respected as the leader in his field for many years.

Braun had a unique corporate policy: If you were going to issue a directive, you had to tell the person Who, What, When, Where, and most importantly, Why someone was to do it. So strong was his belief in using why, it was said that Braun could fire you on the spot if he found you not issuing reasons. Many years later, Charlie Munger would come to sing Braun’s praises for this approach to Reason-Respecting Tendency.

One of Braun’s approaches to maintaining a productive corporate environment was by writing and issuing short books to all of his employees. They had barn-burning titles like Letter Writing in Action, Corporate Correspondence, and Presentation for Engineers and Industrialists. They’re all out of print, but you can find them if you look. And look we did.

One of my favorites is called Fair Thought and Speech; it’s a short primer on how to communicate in an organization in a way that gains and keeps respect and gets people to go along with good ideas and work together productively. It’s a simple idea, but Braun lays out the task:

Why don’t I get along better? I know my work. I know how to present things clearly and logically. I work hard. And yet, something holds me back. This is the quandary of many and many a capable man. The answer too often is that he lacks a generous and kindly way of thinking, a considerate and objective view, and a friendly way of writing and speaking.

There’s more here than meets the eye. Braun saw the way a man communicated as reflective of how he thought.

Get a man to write and speak more objectively, and you get him to think more objectively. Braun was focused, above all, on what worked. He needed to get complicated oil refineries built, and built well. He was also an astute student of human nature, and that comes across in his writing. It’s the simplest and most straightforward writing style imaginable; short, declarative statements one after another. (He studied his Strunk & White.) But he’s also witty and to the point, which is enjoyable to read.

Must Maintain The Illusion I know Evyerthing

These are really a guide to communicating and working with others like a mature grown-up. Like a man. Like a woman. Not like a petulant child, which we all do at times.

We won’t reprint the whole of the book here, but here are some of our favorite dictums from Braun. I try to look them over once in a while and see which ones I’m committing most frequently.

Assume Good Motives

No matter how clear and fair a case may seem to us, somebody is apt to disagree. And this is good, for we need the stimulation of disagreement. Let’s question his information, his reasoning, his conclusions — but never his motives. If we start assuming or imputing ill motives, we lose all chance of influencing our listener. But even worse, we degrade ourselves.

Remind, Not Tell

Even if we are sure somebody had overlooked a bet, or is overlooking it, let’s tender our advice as though we are reminding him of something that he had intended to do, but that something else has crowded out. Let’s lean over backwards in giving to others the credit for ideas. This is the generous thing. It’s the thing that wins respect, both for us and for our ideas.

Put Error to Work

But let’s never, never, cover up error with the misguided thought that we must protect someone — either our brother, or our department, or our own pet ego. The recognition of error and its examination, if openly talked of, is a sure way to avoid its being repeated, either by the same man or by others. Everyone errs at one time or another. The Company pays for it. Okay. But the Company should not have to pay twice. Nor should other men be denied the benefit of warning-signs.

Overt Respect

In all this matter of respect for others, of consideration, tolerance, interest, it is not enough that we feel these things. They cannot be effective if we carry them about locked up within us. We must plainly show them in word, in expression, in countenance, in bearing, in act. We cannot help others, encourage them, or be understood by them, or get willing help from them, if we leave them to guess at our thoughts and intentions.

Invite Acceptance

If we want our opinions or beliefs to be accepted, the worst thing that we can do is to press too hard for them, or to make a personal issue of them. Better not crowd for acceptance, but rather invite it. Better tender our advice with a softening It seems to me. Or an It appears. Or a Perhaps. Or with some similar concession to the ideas of our listener. True, there are times when we must speak as authorities in no uncertain terms. Even then, reasonable humility is seldom amiss.

Easy Does It

If we want to observe how others feel about being rushed, or crowded, or pushed into a corner, just look at a pet of any kind, or at a child. Try to make friends with one of these by being forceful, abrupt, intense. The child will run. The dog will bristle. The cat will jump up on a rafter. Better place yourself or your wares where they can be seen. Then lay off. Give interest, curiosity, and natural friendliness, a chance to work.

Grudging Assent

And when we do give assent (to others), let’s give it cheerfully. No moaning because we lost out. No suggesting that other people are unreasonable, or that they do not understand us. No intimating that we are merely out-argued. We had our fair chance to speak up like a man. No hinting, then, that we merely bow to higher authority. We must all bow to higher authority — to weightier considerations perhaps, or to expediency, or to public opinion, or to our client. If we are stiff-necked about it, we are on the road to ruin.

Writing for the Record

Some men have an irresistible desire to justify their every action. Some like to magnify themselves. Others like to provide an alibi ready for use if needed. Some, perhaps, just don’t think. In any event, they write a letter to some other department or to the boss. The letter first tells how much the writer or his group are doing. Then it puts the finger on others. Just write a few letters like this with plenty of copies sent around, and you’ll dig a grave you’ll never get out of.

Unwise Citing

We have all been approached at some time or other by the Unwise Citer. He asks us to take some action, or refrain from one, solely because certain other people have done so under supposedly like circumstances. The citer, lacking good arguments, has sought to substitute secondhand opinions. This is unfair. It is not helpful. And it directly assaults our ego. We are not given credit for having brains and judgment of our own. Bad stuff.

Air of Prejudice

We don’t have to use words, either, to be unfair. Did you have to sit in court and listen to a prejudiced witness? He’s too intense. He’s too vehement. Quite evidently, he’s not satisfied with stating the facts as he knows them. No, sir! He’s out to prove the other fellow wrong. Result — nobody pays attention to him. Well, let’s be sure when we sit around a conference-table, we’re not like him. Better state our facts clearly, or our views. But let’s not be too anxious. Let’s not try to push either judge or jury. It doesn’t work.

Negation

We all know the chap who is quick to tell us when we are wrong. He probably doesn’t know too much about the subject himself, and hasn’t the confidence to take a positive position. His ego prods him into a negative one. He corrects us with great assurance on the tuning of radios, on the eating of spinach, on other matters of opinion. Let’s feel sorry for his difficulty with his ego. But let’s be sure first, that we’re not perhaps a wee bit like him. We always are.

Refinement

A somewhat more subtle form of negation, is refinement of measurement. One man says that a tank weights ninety tons. And for that particular discussion, accuracy is of no consequence. Yet someone’s ego speaks up and says, Ninety-two tons. Maybe he’s right at that. But he’s wrong just the same. […] This is a favorite husband-and-wife game. Let’s be on guard against it.

Claim-Jumping

One irritating form of pretending is that of claiming priority. Someone suggests a desirable precaution, or action, or change. Up jumps our ego. We had thought of that, we say. We’d intended to do it tomorrow. Maybe we had. Maybe we hadn’t, though — for our imagination at times plays strange tricks on us. In any event, we didn’t come up with it first. We’d better keep quiet, or we’ll surely be suspected of bluffing.

Repetition

Here is an easy trap to fall into. Someone comes out with an idea. It sounds good to us. Our ego grabs hold of it, dresses it in slightly different language, and puts the idea out as our own. We act as though we’d independently arrived at the same conclusion. Maybe so, maybe not — for we cannot trust our memories as to when we first thought a thing, or what it was that started the train of thought. Let’s restrain our egos from grabbing credit. All we wind up with is discredit.

All-Knowing

The worst trick our ego can play on us, is to demand that we know everything. Let’s discipline ourselves until it’s easy to say, I don’t know. And let’s keep out of discussions when they’re on subjects outside of our recognized sphere. Our lack of real knowledge and experience is bound to display itself, and bring resentment from those who are really qualified to speak. Let’s slap our ego down whenever it starts laying claim to knowledge that’s too various.

Don’t Beg

Another thing. Don’t beg. People don’t like it. If then we speak up for some better job that’s open, let’s not till our talk with such words as hoping, thanking, eagerly, favor. If we are really worthy of the job, the Company will benefit by giving it to us every bit as much as we will profit by getting it. The thing works both ways. Why then use begging words that suggest we are thinking of ourselves, not of the Company? And why suggest that we’re not too confident in our ability?

He’s Partly Right at Least

With our eye on our brother’s ego, we’ll see that concession is the very cornerstone of good human relations. We cannot reach human agreements without mutual concession. The self-respect that every man feels impelled to maintain, demands that he appear at least partly right. Therefore, let’s not ever try to prove anyone wholly wrong. Let’s find something herein we can feel that he’s right. Then let’s say so. We simply must not build up our own ego at any unnecessary expense of our brother’s ego. Let’s keep an eye on concession.