Communication is a transactional process in which we communicate with each other through symbols such as language, signs and behaviour. My two year old grandson is learning words and being encouraged to use them. However, when his repertoire of words just won’t do, his actions and gestures leave me in no doubt as to what he wants.
What we see, touch, smell, taste and hear, communicates our environment to us. How we perceive our environment impacts on the message we receive. Smell, which is one of the most powerful senses for memory retrieval, will often remind us of a time in a far away country or a person we hold dear; communicating either fond or unpleasant memories. The same often goes for a song or a piece of music we hear. It communicates feelings that can transport us back in time.
This environment is full of arbitrary signs and symbols that relay us messages or instructions. Some of these signs are universal, like the symbol for male and female toilets. Some are not universal, for example the EXIT signs overseas often have a symbol of a person running, not the word like we have in New Zealand. Our cultural context, understanding and perception can enhance or impede our communication. But whatever the situation, communication is happening all the time, all around us and whilst not always intentional (blushing, sweating), it is inevitable.
We are constantly perceiving and interpreting other people’s behaviour. We can just as easily communicate with silence and body language as much as we can with words. In fact, if our body language contradicts what we are saying, the body language will be believed. I read somewhere that 93% of our communication happens through body language.
So for communication to be effective, it’s as much about how the message is received as it is about how the message is sent. As we know, once a message is sent, either in verbal or visual form, it’s irreversible. We can’t take back the message once a listener or reader interprets it. Think of the billboard signs that have recently caused an outcry. This Tui billboard went up the day Steve Job from Apple passed away. It was meant as a celebration of the Rugby World Cup win by the All Blacks, but due to timing, was seen as gauche and thoughtless. The message received is not always the message intended.
Communication, ‘the process of exchanging information through a system of symbols,’ sounds simple enough but there are a number of aspects to it that make it fraught with difficulty. In fact it is surprising that we get it right as often as we do considering its complexity. Communication is definitely a conundrum.