Words (Don’t) Get In The Way

There is a distressingly large number of songs and writings that seek to attack the verbal content of communication by badmouthing words as a means of communication.  Sometimes this badmouthing is a sign of frustration, as in the song “Words Get In The Way” by Gloria Estefan.  It is easy and proper to feel empathetic with those who struggle to say what is on their mind and in their heart–I certainly share that struggle myself.  Other songs, though, are more hypocritical in their attack on verbal communication.  For example, let us take the song, “I Want You” by Savage Garden, which compares using words and phrases in communicating love to someone else as being a deep-sea diver who is swimming in a raincoat.  This desire to ridicule someone else is all the more hypocritical, though, because it is expressed in words, for we would now know how the narrator felt unless he told it to us.  The same is true of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence,” which says that words are meaningless and forgettable, but we would not know these things–which are false–except that the narrator tells us what he believes in the same words that are being denigrated and attacked.  Any attempt to communicate that words, whether written or spoken, are not to be taken seriously or viewed as important must be communicated through the very verbal or written communication that is being denigrated.  It cannot help but be self-refuting.

This is not to say that communication is easy.  Far from it.  We all struggle mightily in communicating things to others, trying to master the words that will convey what we are thinking and feeling to other people who think and feel differently than we do and who may misread our imperfect attempts at communication and who may fail to pick up the right cues from our tone or in general misinterpret what we have said.  But let us not attack words because they can be misused by people to mislead others or because we and others might struggle to understand what is said and written to us.  The fault is not in written or spoken communication but in the people who abuse it, or in our capacity for self-deception, or in the awkwardness that many of us share.  To be sure, written and spoken communication is a deeply imperfect way to communicate what is going on inside of us to other people.  We may not know the right words to put down our feelings in a way that will get our point across without causing offense, and we may not be able to properly appreciate what other people struggle to tell us.  But we have little recourse but to seek to improve our capacity to send and receive signals from other people through words because the less direct means we have for communicate are even less accurate and powerful than the use of words that so frequently fail us.

It is commonly held that it is not the words itself that are what is being communicated to others, but rather the body language and tone of those words.  And there is a great deal of truth to that.  A great deal of a message is lost because its tone is not right or because body language contradicts what is being said, often because people do not know how to properly determine the vagaries of that tone or body communication and frequently read it in unfriendly ways.  But when we have no spoken or written word at all, we are frequently left with only nonverbal communication, and this will frequently fail to get the message across that we may want to send.  Let us assume that a father shows his love through buying things and desiring to spend time with his kids through the activities that they express an interest in.  Without necessarily having a deep interest in historical simulations or JRPGs, or the enjoyment of Civil or Revolutionary War battlefields, he nonetheless spends many hours driving to them and hiking to them simply because they allow him to spend time doing something that a son of his enjoys.  Is this enough to successfully communicate his love to his son?  Well, if that son happens to be as awkward and imperceptive about matters of the heart as his father is, the point may not be well understood until it is far too late to matter.  To be sure, if the way that we express love to others happens to match the way that others understand them, then we may communicate love without having to say it.  We may communicate our interest and our concern and our respect and our love for people who want nothing to do with it and who are already formulating their plans to escape and avoid us long before we reach the point of verbally communicating things to them.

That said, if we want to communicate things that are complex and nuanced, we have no choice but to use words, because our body language and our actions will in generally only express very broad and overarching feelings and not the complex and specific thoughts or the immensely complicated balance of feelings that we have inside of us.  The fact that such means of communication are necessary for us to understand anything meaningful about other people or the world around us or the past or anything else that requires thinking and reflection ought to encourage us not to badmouth words as being without meaning or importance.  What they ought to do instead is to remind us that words are very important, and the fact that they can be misused and misunderstood and misinterpreted means that we ought to aspire to continually further our clarity of expression as well as our efforts to understand what people are saying, what they mean, and the extent to which either can be ultimately relied upon.  That these are not easy tasks does not make them less essential.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Music History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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