Several months ago I attended an event in which I found myself straining to effectively communicate the importance of the learning community in which I had been heavily involved as an undergraduate. It wasn’t for a lack of interest on the part of the person I was trying to communicate with, who was present specifically to help honor the effort placed on the same work that went into the learning community. So we had a basic, shared understanding of the importance of the work (generally speaking).
Yet, I found myself stumbling on my words as I tried to express the significance, importance, and rarity of the experience I had been privy to as an undergraduate. Why was I so flummoxed by the simple task of communicating what should have been so easy to discuss at an event that had the same individual as the honoree of the event? My first thought was that I was just being an incoherent speaker – certainly a possibility. But the more I thought about the event, the more I wondered if even a perfectly coherent speaker could have effectively communicated the nature of the idea.
You may be thinking at this point that I’ve stumbled upon a blatantly obvious point of human communication, and you’d be correct. But what caused me to stumble wasn’t the concept itself (not terribly controversial), but rather how easy it is to assume a shared context where there may be none and yet how difficult it can be to reach a level of effective communication without spending the substantial amount of time necessary to build that shared context and language.
If you know absolutely nothing about physics, for example, the rumored big announcement about the discovery of the Higgs boson will be completely meaningless and perhaps downright silly-sounding. Yet to effectively converse about the topic would require a great deal of background and training – or a very carefully crafted brief synopsis of the Standard Model of particle physics. (It’s for this reason that I think science writers and others who distill complex concepts into digestible content for the lay audience have a tough job.)
But don’t feel too bad about our challenge with effective communication with shared language and context. Even with the miraculous technological marvel of the Universal Translator, denizens of the fictitious world of the 24th Century still have issues. In the episode “Darmok” from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the characters struggle to understand the meaning of one-another’s speech without a shared context for metaphor and background setting. The other civilization’s basis for communicating on the basis of metaphor and historical reference rings hollow to the humans from Starfleet. For example, the words “Lincoln at Gettsyburg” evoke a flurry of information to most Americans’ minds. But to an alien visitor who knew nothing of American history, all they would hear is <person> at <place> with little additional meaning attached.
Returning to my original point about the difficulty of explanation without a shared language or context, let me add some detail that fills in the story. My effort to express the importance of the learning community rested on a collection of concepts and experiences that were foreign to the individual with which I was speaking. Sure, he heard the words I was uttering, but their meaning was vacuous without an existing context of what “critical thinking” or other key concepts meant in the context of the organization. And given the depth and nuance of the ideas in question, a one-sentence definition wasn’t gonna cut it.
Perhaps the best antidote to the context trap I’ve described is to follow Aristotle’s famous dictum on effective communications: know your audience. At least you’ll have a better idea for what lies ahead and avoid some of the stumbles along the way.