prog_schlock (prog_schlock) wrote,

LJ Idol Week #24 - "Babel"

This is my entry for week #24 of therealljidol. Some strong language and epic cluelessness ahead.


There are 178 parent languages on our planet with over 1000 dialects
It's amazing we communicate at all
~ "AEIOU Sometimes Y" by EBN/OZN

If I were to describe my cluelessness as a body of water, it would be the Dead Sea of cluelessness. Its waters are still, deep and nothing intelligent can survive there.

Back in the early 90's when I was still in grad school, I lived in a house with two amazing roommates. They were amazing, in part, because they were never home. One night, as I was lounging on the couch watching The X-Files, my friend Laura came by the house and invited herself in. This was not unusual - at the time, our apartment was sort of the local hang-out for everyone in the theatre program.

Laura was an old friend and had recently broken up with another mutual friend.

She asked if one of my roommates was home. I said he was not. She climbed onto the couch where I was lying down and stretched her entire body out against mine. She took my hand and placed it on her stomach underneath her shirt.

"Would you like to fuck?" she asked.

No, that's really what she said.

I laughed because I thought she was joking. She laughed too. We stayed on the couch for a few more hours and then she split. I forgot the whole event ever happened.

Years later, I ran into her and she told me "I was so into you but you laughed when I offered to sleep with you."

I told her "I had no idea you were interested in me. You must have been being subtle. I'm pretty clueless sometimes."

That's when she reminded me of the story I just shared. It was only then that I realized the dreadful and wonderful depth of my cluelessness.

Genuine communication can be challenging. At the time, I was in my early 20's and was very attracted to Laura. In another world, this event would have been the only thing that ever happened in my life that could have been turned into an adult film. However, her directness and my lack of understanding of her intention (coupled with the baggage of our life histories) made me assume she was joking. It made her assume that my laughter was rejection instead of my misinterpretation. We were both speaking English but we weren't speaking the same language.

I've spent a lot of time reflecting on how intention gets lost from speaker to listener or from writer to reader. In fact, helping people navigate this is a small part of what I do for a living.

I'm still like a lighthouse with an especially dim bulb on a stormy night. While I'm able to see when miscommunication is occurring, I still misunderstand dozens of things everyday. Since I know I don't always get things the first time, I spend lots of time asking for clarification. I'd rather seem stupid early on in a conversation than not understand what I've been told.

One of the more rewarding parts of this aspect of my job happens at this time of year. I help prepare several graduating seniors prepare to deliver speeches at our school's baccalaureate and graduation ceremonies. Its very rewarding watching students discover that they can confidently speak in front of a thousand people.

The students work on the content of their speech with a language arts teacher. My job is to coach them on their speaking. While I spend a great deal of time coaching mechanics of public speaking (and whoa do some of them need it), my main focus is getting them to speak expressively. The thing I say to them again and again is "speak from your heart."

For some of the kids, that is a much, much huger challenge than learning how to project and articulate. I spend a lot of time asking them to tell me what made them want to write their speech, how they feel about what they've written and what they want their listeners to take away after the speech. I remind them that the words they put on the page are just their way of communicating an idea in their head or a feeling in their heart to other people. This often comes as a revelation to them - the thought that their writing is communicating something deeper than the words is frequently a brand new concept for them.

That intent behind the writing is what I'm really keenly interested in whenever I read or write anything. Am I understanding what the author intended? Am I communicating what I intended?

French dramatist Antonin Artaud once wrote (in his collection of essays The Theatre and Its Double) that actors should be like "like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames." I've always interpreted this - correctly or not - to mean that true communication is almost impossible but something we must strive for anyways. When we are inspired to try and communicate something, there is no way of knowing for sure that the words we're selecting are going to successfully convey the thing to another person. Somewhere between your brain and your reader's brain (or listener's brain, or viewer's brain) there are symbolic flames - a conflagration of dissimilar understandings of word meanings, absence of context and life baggage that can incinerate your meaning and intent or, worse, replace it with an entirely different meaning in the brain of the reader.

Or, to use a different metaphor, language is indeed a virus.

The fiery chasm between writer and reader is so daunting that its truly a small act of courage for an author to even sit down and try to wrestle words into phrases and sentences in the hopes that somebody else will understand them. I'm sure everyone reading this can think of a time that they wrote a piece with a clear intent in mind that was completely misunderstood by their readers. There's a great (perhaps apocryphal) story about the play Arsenic and Old Lace that speaks to this. According to my college theatre professor, writer Joseph Kesserling originally intended for the show to be a serious thriller. They were getting ready to advertise it as such, but the preview audiences found it so funny that the producers decided to market it as a comedy instead. It was a huge success, even if not for the reason Kesserling intended. I wonder if Kesserling was just happy to have the hit play or if it bothered him that the play didn't hit the notes he'd intended.

To go completely meta, when I sat down to create this entry this week, I knew I wanted to address the general concept of "communication is hard." I decided that the best way to describe this would be to discuss coaching students. That made me think of the Artaud quote and how that applies to life and writing. Then I thought "hey, this piece kind of celebrates the act of creating art." I finished that piece last night and when I woke up today thought "you know, I need to personalize this - when did I totally misunderstand somebody's intent. Oh yeah, Laura." My hope is that the first section of this piece draws you in so that you'll still be engaged when I discuss coaching speech and the challenges of communicating messages and feelings. I'm writing this paragraph so that my intent is clear. Of course, I'm also concerned with brevity, so I'm leaving stuff out that might be vital to making my point. Damn, communication is hard.

I love puzzles and figuring out how to get a listener or reader to experience a story or article the way I'd like them to experience it. I know there's never going to be a 100% success rate, but (like most of you) I've figured out what tends to work for me and what doesn't. Still, whenever I release a piece into the wild, I have no idea if its going to get burned up between when I hit "save entry" and when you read it - or whether it will arrive fully drowned from spending too much time in my mental Dead Sea.

What I have learned since my unfortunate miscommunication with Laura is that I should never assume I understand intent just because the words seem clear to me (you also learn this when you direct Shakespeare, which I love). Its just as well Laura and I never became a thing (it would have hurt her ex who was both our dear friend and furthermore I'm a nightmare person to date) but I can't help but wonder what specific word choices she would have needed to use to pull me out of my sea of ignorance.

Honestly, I work a lot better with "meow" than words. I always know what my cats want. Or maybe humans just need to swat me about the face with their claws while they're speaking. I seem to understand that.

Moose the cat communicating effectively with me using his claws


Have you had an epic miscommunication event in your life?
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