“What is communication?”
That was the question our professor posed to us, the honor students of Communication 101. Our assignment was to draw a diagram of how communication works. There’s the sender and the receiver and the message, to be sure, but beyond that, what happens?
- Have people communicated if the message is misunderstood?
- What about nonverbal actions? (Silence can be a powerful message. So can laughing, flipping the bird, and scowling.)
- What if the message is conflicting? (Like when someone says no when she’s signaling yes (or he thinks she’s signaling yes. Or vice versa on gender or message.)
- What if the words operate on more than one level? (Literal versus figurative.)
- What if the other person cannot understand the message because of personal limitations?
Has communication still happened? Or is it a failure?
A huge issue for communicators is the inability to see and hear how their message is perceived by others. Most of us know only our own personal viewpoint. We also tend to surround ourselves with people who are like us in significant ways: similar socio-economic class, similar racial and ethnic profiles, similar political views or spiritual inclinations.
(In my experience, those who do not and who deliberately seek out people different from themselves, have a higher level of tolerance and respect for differences. They often wind up finding those equally tolerant people from the pool of “different” people available. Good intentions, though, and the conversations are far more likely to be productive than, for example, the inevitable explosions between a militant, intolerant atheist and an equally militant, equally intolerant Christian who breathe the same air.)
A communicator sends a message.
The message is received by others, but it is not understood in the same way by everyone.
Those from a similar viewpoint hear the words and the intention.
Those from a different viewpoint don’t hear the intention behind the words. Nor do they interpret the words in the same way.
For example, when my first boyfriend broke up with me, he said, “I don’t love you anymore, but you’re still the person at college I care most about.”
Here’s what I heard: I don’t love you, but I’m still the person who cares about you the most.
Twisted? You bet.
In my opinion, the best communicators are aware that not everyone will receive their message in the same way. They step into other people’s worlds. Then they turn their message around, examining it from different viewpoints. While they may not change their message, they may change how the message is conveyed. Words, phrases, actions: these are modified to clearly communicate with others.
Contrast the ideal communicator to what happens in this video. It’s an older one, but it illustrates my point.
One issue with these men, I think, is that they cannot put themselves in another’s position and hear how the words sound to someone not from their background. The joke about domestic violence—Divorce, never. Murder, often!–might possibly be humorous to someone in a loving marriage where violence is not, and never has been, an option. (Possibly, not certainly.)
But the joke sounds horrible to a domestic violence victim whose spouse has attempted to murder her. Threatening, even. Many of us would agree: this joke isn’t funny. But because these men never been in that position, they can’t imagine that the joke might be interpreted any other way.
Last Sunday, I ran headlong into this issue at church. We were discussing the theology of total depravity. As several men talked about how we’re without the ability to do good, deserving of God’s just wrath, and worthless, I had that tumbling feeling inside, telling me that I need to say something.
I heard their words on two levels.
1. The theological level, the level all these men were operating on. I know how we can’t save ourselves and why we need Jesus. I get that. I’ve read the Bible. I get it.
2. The real world level. I was aware that this type of theology has been used to oppress others. I know that if I were being abused or had been abused, the words “we’re worthless” would twist in my mind to become justification for that abuse: I deserve to be beaten. I deserve to be raped. Or molested. Or beaten. I deserve every horrible, unjust thing that has happened or is still happening to me. None of that is true, but that doesn’t prevent these lies from being heard.
I know this because I’ve listened to victims’ stories.
I know this from being discriminated against by certain males at my Christian college.
I know this, simply by being the “other,” an outsider who observes.
When I got a chance to speak—I had to interrupt—my words came out wrong, which happens a lot in my verbal communication, especially when I don’t know the listeners well. (I become nervous and flustered, intimidated and fearful lest others pounce on my words and interrogate me, cross-examination style.) I don’t think that the men understood what I was saying.
Communication failure. How frustrating.
It was equally frustrating that I sensed these particular men couldn’t understand. They could not see how words can be both theologically correct and result in literal death.
They couldn’t understand that no matter how well-intentioned the message was, or what other truths were conveyed, or how beautifully articulated, if the messenger did not have empathy for the hearer’s condition, the hearer would only hear a lie: I’m worthless.
Communication failure, ignoring word connotations.
Empathy failure, ignoring other people’s perspectives.
Church failure, ignoring the practical consequences of theology, and as a result, perpetuating sin.
It’s unintentional, at least at this church. Don’t worry, I won’t keep my mouth shut at church. I may have failed to communicate this time, but I’ll keep trying.