How Do You Communicate?
“Imagine a table.”
What kind of table did you imagine? Was it a dining table, a coffee table, a conference table? Was it round, oval, rectangular, or perhaps a pentagon? Was it made of wood, glass, metal, or plastic? Was it black, brown, white, blue, or maybe pink with purple polka dots?
When asked to imagine a table, different people will imagine different tables. That’s normal. For clear communication and to transfer specific images exactly right, the use of modifiers is required.
“Imagine a round table.”
The images formed of “a table” get a little closer to each other.
“Imagine a big round wooden table.”
The images formed of “a table” get a lot closer to each other.
“Imagine a big round brown wooden dining table.”
Even though “big” is a relative term, and what one person calls big may be small to another, the images formed of “a table” become somewhat similar with these modifiers. The size, shape, color, material, and function of the table are all stated, allowing for the narrowing of the general image of “a table.”
A table is a concrete noun. Its size, shape, and color can be described with adjectives. Its material is one of the common concrete materials used in making tables and other pieces of furniture. A person can visualize it using their five senses. It’s an object that can be seen and touched, even though its function is only clear to people familiar with the concept of eating at a table. Many cultures don’t use a table when dining.
Transferring a message containing a concrete noun can be somewhat effectively accomplished with the use of a few proper modifiers.
What about an abstract noun? A noun that cannot be felt with the senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste, or touch? How do we transfer messages containing abstract nouns such as love, responsibility, or virtue? What do people “understand” when they use or hear these words?
Each word may have an equivalent in another language, but the true meaning of some words vary from culture to culture and sometimes even from person to person within the same culture. This is particularly true of abstract nouns.
Conveying a message becomes much more challenging than adding a few modifiers. A whole story is then needed to describe and explain the kind of love, responsibility, or virtue that needs to be understood by the reader or listener. The story must be felt, not with the senses, but with emotions.
If someone doesn’t experience these words personally, whether they haven’t had the opportunity or they are incapable of feeling, they may have a very different understanding of some words than the meaning the speaker or writer is trying to convey.
What is “responsibility” to you?
Many years ago, I was having coffee with a group of acquaintances, and we were talking about the responsibility of every individual in a random society. Many of us were shocked when one middle-aged man said, “My responsibility is to make my bed, brush and floss my teeth, put my plate in the sink, and leave my dirty laundry in the hamper.” Someone even laughed, thinking he was joking. Only he wasn’t.
The man then explained that he was raised in a foster home and the children’s list of responsibilities was attached to the wall. Four or five decades later, he was still holding on to that definition. Someone said, “Well, maybe at home, but what is your responsibility in society as a citizen?” The man replied he didn’t feel he had any.
Then someone asked him, “Well, that may be true at home, but what is your responsibility toward other people in society?” The man answered he had none.
What do you think will happen if you ask this man, “Do you consider yourself a responsible person?” He will honestly reply yes, truly believing he is.
Words mean different things to different people. Words may be defined in dictionaries, but when they are used daily in interactions with others, miscommunication happens without either party noticing it.
I read “Le Petit Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Have you read it? It was originally written in French, but it has been translated into many languages and is accessible online.
When communicating, it’s important to remember that people from different backgrounds, cultures, education, and even families have different definitions for the words they use in their everyday life.