Talking At Cross Purposes

My news feeds at the moment are filled with articles and papers on how and why people are increasingly disregarding facts, evidence, the scientific approach and preferring to believe what they hold to be true. What I read and hear ranges from incredulous reactions (only last week, I heard a podcast contributor for whom the light had only just dawned: “And you know what, they carry on believing Donald Trump! It’s really scary.” I felt like throttling her and yelling where have you been hiding? Do you walk around with your eyes shut and your hands over your ears?) to far more thoughtful analyses, including in some fairly meaty and academic research. A quick flick through this week’s New Yorker, for instance, offers this article by Elizabeth Kolbert, which reviews several pieces of research on just that topic.

But at the risk of sounding cynical, I am acutely reminded of the 1980s, when for a while you were submerged  with advice on how to avoid the then brand new bogey: AIDS. After a spate of adverts, awareness raising campaigns, sexual health promotion initiatives, a raft of articles came out. They all boiled down to this: when people are about to have sex, they’re not necessarily focused on being prudent and wise and cautious. Duh.

Coming back to the topic I introduced above, it’s not that amazing that people cling to their world view. It’s depressing, it doesn’t show us humans in a particularly favourable light, but it’s not difficult to understand. We like our comforts, and one of them is to maintain a belief system that feels right and fitting.

So I’m going to add my two pennies’ worth by writing a few pieces like this one. I’m starting with this essay on miscommunications, which is kind of tangential to this issue of the so-called post-factual era (a term I prefer to “post-truth era” because surely we can all at least agree that truth is eminently subjective?). Never mind misleading soundbites, quotes stripped of any context, pure inventions and fake news, we humans are not always that great at communicating in the most general sense.

It’s something I’ve been aware of for a long time. I have often thought to myself “that’s not what they said exactly!” when involved in or overhearing a conversation or other communication. I often used to pick up on linguistic differences when French or English were used by non-native speakers and the habit extended to what I saw as blips in communication even where language proficiency wasn’t an issue. And when I felt involved enough and legitimate to clarify what I thought was unclear, I did so. I do so less nowadays, at least for anything other than what I feel are the more glaringly obvious misrepresentations. And even then I only do it when I think my reaction will be noticed, which sadly excludes most of the nonsense that is currently being bandied about.

Fundamentally, the main reason I don’t often try and “correct” miscommunication is that I’m very aware that my assessment of what is or isn’t a clear message might not be the only valid one…

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