Posts Tagged ‘miscommunication’

i know

Everything I do involves the transfer of ideas. I teach English, thankfully often to people who actually plan to use it in either the US or Europe (or England, which I guess doesn’t count anymore?). So I am constantly figuring out new better ways to understand ideas people are trying to communicate to me, and to effectively communicate my own ideas to others. But this isn’t just my job. It’s my whole life. And it’s not just a job for me. This one is for all of us.

I get home from work and the work continues, because as anyone who studies or works in language already knows, INeffective MIScommunication is pretty much where every shitstorm starts. Words just seem to have this nasty habit of changing, evolving, and flipping their meaning 9000 degrees along that treacherous journey from mouth to ear. There’s so much room out there for walls and booby-traps to stop ideas in their tracks, with results ranging everywhere from funny to fatal.


Take the US for example (can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em, amiright??). The past few weeks we’ve seen a tragic evolution in the country’s paralyzing addiction to violence and aggression.  After years of reports and videos of what many feel to be excessive police violence, the violence has turned its crooked smile back on the police themselves.

Two major national tragedies in two weeks – mass shootings of police officers, and both by US veterans – have thrust the US into a dark time. But it seems like every time we try and begin a productive conversation about even the general problem of violence in the US, the sad problem of miscommunication gets in the way once again.

Watching from the outside, it looks to me like the entire country is talking past each other, particularly when it comes to violence and the police. How is this possible? The simplest way I can rationalize it is a fundamental difference in abstraction. Abstraction is basically how you draw the line between one “thing” and another in your mind.

Where does one “thing” end and the next begin? As a new driver, the act of “starting the car” involves numerous small steps like adjusting your mirrors, buckling your seatbelt, turning the key, shifting into 1st (or Drive), etc. After 20 years behind the wheel, “starting the car” becomes one action that happens to include all these smaller steps we no longer think about. This is abstraction. To me and most others, a chair is a chair. It’s a thing I sit on. To a master carpenter however, a chair is a work of art, many little pieces that fit together perfectly in a particular, beautiful way in order to stand tall and elegantly support the weight of my lazy ass.

So there appears to be a fundamental problem with abstraction when we talk about “the police” in the United States. To some, “the police” refers to the system of police and policing, including rules, regulations, quotas, metrics, training, culture, job descriptions, transparency, etc. that we all pay for, yet clearly and definitely contains some serious problems.

To others, the “police” are simply those wearing the uniforms, those you can point out of a crowd. Police are the men and women who perform a necessary, difficult, and dangerous duty everyday. Failure to clarify whether you mean police-as-people or “the police” as a system or particular government program appears to end any productive conversation on this issue before it ever even begins.

The Black Lives Matter movement wants changes in the system of policing in the US. Meanwhile, opponents claim that individual police officers are often good people who deserve to be respected. What’s often missed is that both are true, and more importantly, both are possible! You can respect the courage of individuals while criticizing the broken systems they may represent on the clock.

In fact, if you truly want to honor individual police, you should want the system that employs them to be as fair and safe as possible for everyone involved. From the good, honorable men and women who don the badge and put their lives on the line everyday, to the citizens on the street whose taxes pay for this program of “protection” and “service,” everyone benefits from a better system of policing. Well, everyone except those who would plan to abuse it.

So in my opinion, as a professional communication enhancer and clarifier-of-ideas (look how good I am at the putting-together-of-the-words), it’s important to start taking the time to clarify the language we use when debating this volatile, yet essential issue. Unless we can agree on what “it” is that we’re actually even talking about, we’ll never make any progress and in our stagnation, lives will surely be lost.

Until we first agree on which bone is broken, we’ll never be able to make the right cast (or perform the right surgery). If you really care about the senseless loss of life on either side of this picket line, you’ve got to start caring about how effectively we are even communicating with each other in the first place. Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between “lightning” and “lightning bug.” Let’s make sure we’re all talking about lightning, or we’ll never make it out of this storm on the horizon alive.