COMMUNICATION — A CONTINUING PROBLEM
T. PIERCE BROWN
I am constantly amazed, and sometime amused, by our problems in communication. Were it not for the terribly serious nature of the problem, much more of it would be amusing. Although I feel sure that college textbooks, doctoral dissertations, and many articles have been written on the subject, I do not remember any of them at the moment, but feel a pressing need to call to our attention some aspects of the problem that have come to my attention recently.
Years ago, I heard of an orator who was declaiming on the greatness of womanhood. He may have been a preacher, preaching a “Mother’s Day” sermon. At any rate, he had in his notes the following: “Woman! Without her, man would be a beast!” What he actually said was, “Woman, without her man, would be a beast!” See what one small misplaced comma can do! Since then, I have been impressed many times that a person can quote my exact words and give an exactly opposite meaning to my statement. I have seen it happen in what I thought was a deliberate effort to pervert a statement, but it probably happens frequently through ignorance or inattention.
As important as punctuation is in a written sentence, inflection and emphasis are equally important in a spoken sentence. This is why I have said on more than one occasion, “It is almost impossible to tell the truth if you try to repeat verbally what another person says.” A feeble illustration of it might be: Your little curly-headed boy comes up to me, and in tenderness and love, I pat him on the head and say, as any grandfather might, “You little rascal.” To him, I have communicated, “I love you. I think you are precious.” But you may report it, “He hit my boy on the head and called him a rascal.” It may be difficult to deny, and even harder to explain. In any case, however, “the Golden Rule” and the admonition of James1:19, “But let every one be quick to hear, slow to speak — ” would help.
Other difficulties are raised by the multiple meaning of many words, when we, in normal statements, use only words which mean only one thing for us. We are aware that many jokes are made with what is called “double-entendre,” but in many cases the result is not funny at all, for we are not making a joke, and the other person simply takes one meaning when we have another. For example, “fast” may refer to a color that will not run, or a horse that will. When I was growing up, I heard some women referred to as “fast.” I was not sure then whether it was because they would not run, or because they did, or something in between, but I got the impression that it was “a horse of a different color.” I learned years later that some men were “fast” workers too, and it did not have reference to how many shocks of hay he could pitch on the wagon before sundown. If one does not eat, he may “fast,” and if he does, he may eat fast. It is probably a tribute to the high intelligence of a “foreigner” if he ever learns our language!
In much of the writing I have seen on the divorce problem for the past half century, I have read of “the guilty party.” I assumed for many years that those who used the expression meant “the party who had been guilty of adultery” which is the only grounds Jesus gives for divorce. But I have discovered that some of the writers apparently mean — at least sometimes — that “the guilty party” may be guilty of “defrauding” the other party of their sexual rights and thereby be the “cause” of their infidelity. In at least one case the one who made the statement appeared to teach that the party who was “guilty” of defrauding the other was in the same category as the “guilty” party who committed adultery. I deny that, but the purpose of this article is not to discuss that. One has a right to use the term “guilty party” to discuss any kind of guilt he wants to — from the guilt of not wiping dirt off the feet before walking on the carpet on up to adultery. But he should try to make clear to what “guilt” he has reference. The problem may be compounded because the Bible does not talk of “the guilty party” in those terms, so make up these little phrases to describe what we think ANY idiot should be able to see — for WE see it! Then we may expect everyone else to mean by the phrase what we mean by it.
Those of us who write have the responsibility to try to make clear what we mean by as concise use of the English (or Greek) language as we can, but those of us who read have an equal responsibility to realize that the writer MAY not have meant EXACTLY what we think he did. I believe one writer stated it in his usual clear and concise fashion like this: “You need to realize that what you thought I meant by what I said I thought you said you said is not necessarily what I said I meant.”
Although these suggestions and reminders will not keep any of us who write articles from getting letters referring to us as a “low-browed nincompoop,” or a person who can not “see through a ladder,” or some other similar vivid, and perhaps accurate appellation, they may help us to realize that he MAY have misunderstood us, or we MAY have misunderstood him. After all, how do you know for sure that “nincompoop” means the same to him as it does to you? Anyway, it behooves us to “put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another — .”