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Communication and miscommunication matters

It is generally believed that people use language in order to communicate. Noam Chomsky has observed that it is used for self-expressionas well, with no communicative purpose. One of my room-mates in the hostel, when I was doing my B.A., used to write, every night, about his day after we went to sleep. He wouldn’t share with us – we were four in the room – what he wrote. He was writing his diary for himself, not for others, unlike autobiography writers, he told us. We thought he had a point. We were almost certain he would be writing bad things about us and good things about the girls in our class. We wanted to find out the truth but the clever fellow that he was, he knew we were after his diary; so he always kept it under lock and key and the key was always with him. Now, we were too timid to break his lock or maybe we weren’t really that curious. Maybe both were true. Can’t be sure; it happened about sixty years ago. In any case, this piece is not about our roomie. He becomes important for our present purpose because he doing proves Chomsky’s assertion.

So, communication is about sharing. Doesn’t Chomsky suggest this? But then how does sharing take place? In a conversation, one says something and the hearer gives it meaning. Then the hearer-turned-speaker says something in response and the speaker-turned-hearer gives it a meaning. The meaning the hearer gives to what was said to him may or may not be the intended meaning. There is nothing that the utterance contains that persuades the receiver to give it the intended meaning. If he makes the effort towards that end, fine, but if he decides not to bother about it at all, that’s fine as well. If one tells someone “that man is a fox”, the sentence does not tell the addressee that it has an underlying meaning. But one generally tends to work out the underlying meaning and gives it the meaning that the man under reference is unreliable. And that one does this by using non-linguistic resources of the mind: knowledge of the world, commonsense reasoning, etc. Let us not go into the details here. 

One might think the interaction (i.e., conversation) situation demands that the messages be shared; in other words, communication takes place. The hearer is under no obligation – certainly not legal –to give the speaker an appropriate response in a conversation situation. If SolanasksMolan, strangers to each other, “How do you go to Keonjharfrom the Bhubaneswar airport”, nothing forbids Molan from saying, “Why don’t you go to Cuttack? Near Barbati stadium, you get mouth-watering dahi vada (vada in curd) with hot aloo dam (potato curry)? Or, if you are a committed non-vegetarian, then try some hot vada with lamb curry in Buxi Bazaar.” Now, both of them have said things and both of them have understood what they said to each other. But is this “sharing” in the sense we are using the word here? Certainly not. That is, there has been talking but no communication between Solan and Molan. It’s a failed conversation.

But people ordinarily do not really respond to the question about how to go to Keonjhar in the way Molan did. This is because people are ordinarily empathetic to one another and try to be helpful and cooperative in social interaction. That’s the way we are made. If this natural inclination for helping one another was not there, do you think the human race would have survived?

It may be because of this inclination that people try and make a sincere effort to work out the hidden meaning of utterances when the literal meaning seems odd or inappropriate in some way. That is why, it is possible that Solanmight gives the meaning to Molan’sresponse that Nolan thought that it would be better if he doesn’t go to Keonjhar right then because maybe the weather there at that time was not tourist-friendly, maybe something else and that he should spend a couple of days in the ancient city of Cuttack and explore its charms.

Now, suppose Solan is a cantankerous person. He might think that Molan had taken his request for information about how to go to Keonjhar non-seriously and had given him a deliberately irrelevant answer. He would look upon it as his having humiliated him. In that case, he might give the tour advisor a dirty look or an unkind frown and ask him to get lost. But if Solan was also a person with power, then he might administer to the cheeky fellow Molana sound tongue lashing or worse! Who can make reliable predictions about such people!

So this could be another reason why an interaction such as the above, where one gets an irrelevant answer to one’s query, is not an example of normal, real-life conversation. It is fear of the consequences. Both our natural inclination to be helpful and cooperative to other humans and our sense of fear of reprisal could be the reasons why communication takes place.

What is “miscommunication”? When the hearer gives meaning to the speaker’s utterance which was unintended by the speaker, then we, who are the third party, call it miscommunication. Unless the speaker and the hearer realize that there has been a communication gap and try to address the problem, then it might even affect their relationship, if it is there. But if there isn’t, they being strangers to each other or just casual acquaintances, then they may leave the matter at that and go their way.

Miscommunication arises because there is no way for the hearer to know the meaning intended by the speaker. He can never be certain. He can only have a guess. Therefore, miscommunication is always a possibility when we try to communicate. Sometimes miscommunication happens when the persons concerned belong to different cultural backgrounds. In a spat between our Harbhajan Singh and the Australian during a cricket match – that was many years ago – the Australian Symonds called Harbhajan “obnoxious little weed”. His was an angry reaction to what he thought Harbhajan had said to him: “monkey”. What Harbhajan had (in all likelihood; but Sachin Tendulkar had absolutely no doubts about it) uttered was a Punjabi expletive, which contained the “m” sound word-initially and the “k” sound word-finally. This was not directed at Heyden; it would make no sense in that case. It was an interjection as the grammarians call it. These terms express feelings. These occur in informal speech. The acceptable ones in English are “Wow”, “Ouch”, “Oh boy”, etc. In Odia, a popular interjection is “he prabhu”; some others are “heh”, “het” and “hetterike”.  One of the most commonly used expletive – interjections in English is the four-lettered word, beginning with “sh..” Now, “sh…” is often the utterer’s expression of frustration or disappointment at something that one has done unintentionally or something that has happened that has upset the utterer. Harbhajan had uttered the “m…k” word in frustration. Not knowing the language and the use of the relevant expletive, Symonds thought Harbhajan had racially abused him.

Incidentally, Symonds is said to have received a mild reprimand from the Australian cricket authorities for being rude to Harbhajan but Harbhajan didn’t receive anything comparable from the Indian cricket authorities. They were right: you don’t get punished for using interjections in speech, neither does the utterance of interjection-expletive an offence in grammar or law books – the latter to the best of my knowledge!

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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