Communication - translating thoughts from one person's imagination to another's interpretation - is highly reliant on verbal expression through speech and non verbal cues like body gestures. The message conveyed through speech, is largely defined not only by the thoughts of the speaker but significantly by the meaning the listener infuses into the words. Interpretation is largely influenced by one's experiences and cultural background among other factors, as well as inherent limitations of language. Despite hearing the same words, the meaning different people extract can vary substantially. Hence even our most eloquent expressions of our thoughts run the risk of being received differently than we intend. This journey through speech: from conceiving the ideas and emotions in one person's mind, verbalizing through their lips, to the other's ears and mind where the information is interpreted, has many levels bearing substantial potential for information to undergo significant loss and alteration.
The Journey of an Expressed Thought: From Imagination to Interpretation
Stage 1: From the Speaker's Mind to Their Lips
Despite being the most sophisticated means of communication, language is insufficient to communicate many of our thoughts and ideas for several reasons.
Firstly because we may struggle to find the appropriate words. We certainly vary in our abilities to find suitable words in different circumstances. This difference in proficiency implies a varying capacity to successfully and effectively convey the intricacies of our thoughts and emotions..
Secondly even when we find the best fitting words, they still may not express many thoughts or ideas exactly or fully. Words are encapsulations of partial and approximate meaning of concepts. Partial, implying a loss of detail and approximate implying loss in exactness. So naturally, loss of information is an inevitable price we pay for using them.
Loss of detail due to limitations in our ability to precisely translate details of a mental image into words. Thinking occurs in multiple ways, including mental images and words, and there's an inevitable loss of detail when we attempt to convert non-verbal thoughts into words, even when we are as descriptive as possible. Consequently, what's verbalized is neither an exact nor a complete representation of what was initially in our minds. For instance, think about trying to describe an unusual appearance from a dream you had; you often struggle to find the words that capture it sufficiently for your listener to recreate the exact image in their imagination. This loss of detail during the conversion from mental imagery to words is similar to the challenge you might encounter when describing an unfamiliar object to a friend who then attempts to draw it based on your description. It becomes apparent that conveying mental images and concepts fully through language is a complex task, even for the most articulate individuals.
Loss of detail due to the difficulty to identify and translate specific sensations.
It is challenging enough to identify accurately the myriad of sensations that one could experience in their body and mind at a given moment.
I could say "I am experiencing sensations of heaviness and my body feels drained. This makes it harder for me to be patient and more likely to be frustrated by small annoyances.
It is accompanied by a tight sensation in my chest, noticeably shallower breathing and overall restlessness that makes it difficult for me to sleep despite being exhausted."
Or, I could simply say "I am tired." Most people would say the latter.
The difficulty to identify each sensation fully, coupled with the tendency toward simpler expression means what I end up communicating is a fraction of what I am in fact experiencing in that moment, leaving out lots of details with varying consequences.
Loss of information due to limitations in lexicon and the varying scope that words encompass across different societies. This can be attributed to two primary factors:
i. Corresponding words often hold different parts of the same concept across languages. For instance, consider the English word "love" and its French counterpart "amour." While both words refer to strong positive feelings of affection, amour in French can sometimes carry a more romantic or passionate connotation compared to the broader usage of love in English. So, when I experience a feeling that a French person might term "amour," I, as an English speaker, would use the word "love." However, if I were to speak in French and use the equivalent "amour," the person might interpret it slightly differently due to the nuanced differences in the definitions of these words in their respective languages. I would certainly be experiencing the same thing internally, but the accepted word for either culture captures a different subset, of the emotion. This illustrates that words, in essence, are limited in capturing the full breadth of the concepts they represent. They serve as culturally accepted, yet approximate, encapsulations of these ideas rather than precise definitions. Essentially, each word represents just a narrow segment within the broader spectrum of the concept it describes, often falling short of conveying the complete or exact essence of that idea.
ii. Some languages have concepts that do not exist in others - or at least that do not have an equivalent word for in other languages. This certainly does not mean that people in other societies don't experience similar feelings or phenomena. For instance, the Japanese word "itadakimasu" has no direct English counterpart. While one might loosely translate it as "enjoy your meal" in English, the depth of its meaning extends far beyond. Itadakimasu expresses gratitude to to everyone and everything that made the meal possible, from nature that provided the ingredients to the chef, to the person serving—a concept that does not exist, or at least for which there is not a word assigned in the English language. Because languages often capture different facets of concepts differently, it may be more precise to use a word from a second language, even when both speakers share a common first language, simply because that second language or culture better encapsulates the feeling. Without the right words in one's language, capturing and conveying the complete depth of an emotion can be a little more challenging.
Such differences and limitations across different languages certainly influence what and how much we communicate. They demonstrate that language and culture determines to a large extent, the words we use and indirectly the emotions and ideas we express, and as a consequence those that we omit. This is why an initiative like "The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows" exists and has such a profound impact. It is a commendable effort to coin new words for ideas and emotions that lack a suitable existing word, and manages to do so in a very relatable manner. As the author of this project accurately highlights:
"Many [words] are crude and exaggerated, bearing little resemblance to the things they're supposed to represent. Certain other cultures might connect the dots very differently, sometimes overlapping, sometimes untranslatable... Such is the blessing and the curse of language. Words are so effective at simplifying reality that it's easy to lose track of how much detail is being left out...It's as if we have become so fixated on the constellations that we're unable to see the stars."
Through these, one can perhaps appreciate the loss of detail occurring in the first part of the journey of an idea from imagination to spoken words.
Stage 2: From the Speaker's Lips to the Listener's Ears.
Let's assume the ideal scenario here, where every word of the speaker is properly heard by the listener. There is no loss of information at this step.
Stage 3: From the Listener's Ears to Their Mind - Interpretation.
This stage introduces further significant potential for alteration of information or loss of detail, even in the absence of any malicious intent. Several factors can influence the meaning of a word, leading it to represent different things to different people at different times. These factors include mood, life circumstances, context (such as what happened before or is about to happen), training, lived experiences, cultural background, mindset, and more. One can never be sure that words will produce the effects they intend. It becomes evident how this potential for alteration can be amplified as we progress from individual words to sentences or complete conversations.
Here's an example to illustrate how the mental image in the listener's mind can undergo alterations, even with the best intentions during communication.
[Speaker's mental image: A blue body of water with tall waves that foam heavily as they crash unto the shore.][Speaker]: “The ocean looked immensely beautiful today.” --> (Loss of detail)[Listener's ears]: "The ocean looked immensely beautiful today." --> (All good, no loss or alteration here.)[Listener's mental image: “A calm turquoise body of water, with occasional ripples, reflecting the sun perfectly.” --> (Alteration of detail)[Speaker, asking to confirm what the listerner understood.] "You know what I mean?"[Listener]: "Oh yes, you witnessed an immensely lovely ocean today. "
The possible difference between the original thought in the speaker's mind and the final impression in the listener's mind should surely give us pause about assuming that what we think and explain is exactly what gets imparted upon them. These deviations arise due to differences in prowess of expression, limitations in language and varying interpretation among other factors. Remembering that what you think you comprehend is essentially an approximation of the speaker's intent can act as a valuable restraint from being too quick to judge or rigid in your conclusions. What you heard is only what you heard; even when it’s exactly what they said, what you then understood is your approximation of what they meant.