Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Communication Matters

I looked into learning biblical Greek awhile back. Probably not to become a scholar of the language, but perhaps enough to have some basic conversation about it. My science background helped during the alphabet part because Greek letters are often used in physics and such. But I found myself annoyed by the little accent marks as we went just a bit further into the grammar. I wondered: are those really necessary? Can I get by without them?

That memory came to me recently when I saw a headline in the paper:
'It's been an absolute joy,' retiring judge says

Consider what happens with a tiny shift in punctuation:
'It's been an absolute joy retiring,' judge says

Yep, punctuation matters.

This reminds me of a bulletin in our church awhile back. A couple which had been quite involved there for many years was preparing to move. An announcement in the bulletin read "They're leaving!" An exclamation point suggests emotion, but which one? Is it angry, joyful, distraught, relieved, surprised? I couldn't help but think of a whole list of interpretations.

A friend recently posted a Facebook status update: "We're outta here!" I wanted to "like" the post because I was happy for them, then got distracted from that as I realized that such a response is linguistically ambiguous -- happiness about their vacation vs. having them gone.

Some of this is arguably silly, overly concerned with others' perceptions. Still, I can't help but think of some decidedly un-silly encounters, like when a friend was angry with me about something I'd said to another -- and the heart of my statement was significant misrepresented even while the quote was close enough to accurate. Or when another conversation became a little tense after (we figured out eventually) my friend interpreted a pronoun to refer to something nearly opposite of what I'd intended. Or when I felt thoroughly discouraged and hurt by a voicemail that sounded (in the context of my day) like an accusation, left by a friend who actually meant something very different.

"What you see and what you hear depends a great deal
on where you are standing...
[and] on what sort of person you are."
(C.S. Lewis in The Magicians Nephew)

Our perceptions are always shaded by previous experiences, ambiguities in language, situational knowledge, expectations, worldview, personalities, and more. I appreciate people who offer me the benefit of the doubt along with a plentiful portion of grace, especially when I've communicated poorly, and I want to be that kind of person for others, too.

I want to check my assumptions and my perceptions, to consider from others' perspectives both as I listen and as I speak, and to ask clarifying questions, because sometimes I am quite mistaken (or mistakable) even when communication seems abundantly clear.

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