Monthly Archives: January 2022

It’s a little outrageous that something so basic and so obvious has to be spelled out, but this is the world we live in, and these are the people that share the world with us.

Thus far, our most effective form of communication is language, either spoken or written. (For the sake of simplicity, sign language will be considered as “spoken” and braille will be considered as “written”.) Both spoken and written languages use “words”, written as a string of symbols (like letters), or spoken as a string of sounds (like phonemes). It is which words that get assigned which meanings that largely differentiates one language from another. (But also grammar, pronunciation, and other elements.)

For example, in the United States, telling someone to put their stuff in the trunk usually means to put it in the rear storage compartment of a car. But in England the rear storage compartment of a car is called a “boot” – a trunk in England is a piece of furniture for storing linens. On the other hand, a boot in the US is something worn on your feet. Thus, if an American and an Englishman are trying to communicate where to stow their gear and they aren’t aware of the differences in how they each use these words, miscommunication and confusion will likely be the result, resulting in a failure to communicate.

You don’t even have to leave the US to find different people using the same words in different ways.  In the Midwest and West, people refer to a soft drink like Coke or Pepsi as “pop”. In the South, many people use the word “coke” instead, even if it’s not Coca-Cola brand. Most other places uses the word “soda”. So if you show up in New England and ask someone for a “pop”, who knows what you might get!

Then there’s a whole other problem of both homonyms and ambiguity. Homonyms are words with the same spelling or pronunciation, but different meanings – which can easily result in accidental miscommunications, such as the (real) headline that read “Woman loses 50 pounds – a third of her left behind!”

As amusing as homonym-based misunderstandings may be, the real threat to effective communication is an overabundance of ambiguity. While simple words like “dog” and “cat” may not leave too much room for misinterpretation, more abstract words like “freedom” and “life” tend to have very individualized meaning to each speaker – meaning that two people might easily imagine that the way one of them is using one of these abstract words is the same way the other one is using it – when that has a decent chance of being utterly untrue!

For example, most self-described atheists would define the word “atheism” to mean nothing more than LACKING a belief in any gods. However, many people who describe themselves as agnostics would likely use the word atheism differently to mean a positive assertion that no gods can or do exist. So according to the atheist, the word “atheist” covers anyone who doesn’t have any particular belief in any gods – which likely includes most of the aforementioned agnostics. On the other hand, agnostics may be surprised to find that very few of the people who call themselves “atheists” would make the claim to know that no gods exist, because most of them don’t assert that.

And so, a self-identified atheist and a self-identified agnostic may have a conversation about atheism only to find that they are constantly confusing each other and miscommunicating – all because the word “atheism” has several subtly different meanings used in different ways by different people. Almost all of the “big concept” words have multiple related definitions: god, love, truth, reality, knowledge, freedom, right, wrong, and on and on.

Which brings us to the central point I’m making. One of the most common human endeavors is conversing and/or communicating about the search for truth and meaning, knowledge and wisdom, facts and feelings. At the center of these exchanges are all the “big-concept” words referred to above – all the words with countless differently shaded meanings depending on who is speaking and equally, who is listening.

If we want to make a fair and reasonable effort at communication, we will want to do our best to communicate effectively – that is, to speak or write in such a way to ensure that our communications are as clear as possible and minimize the likelihood of anyone either not understanding us, or worse, misunderstanding us.

Likewise, when hearing or reading the words of another, we need to do our due diligence to be constantly aware that what we *think* they are saying may not be actually what they are saying at all – and anytime when we are uncertain, it is on us to bring that up, in order to help the speaker or writer ensure that their attempt to communicate their thoughts to us as intended is successful.

These are the Fundamental Requirements for Intelligent Conversation(FRIC).

  • A recognition that words have no intrinsic meaning of their own, just the meaning that we have assigned to them,
  • And thus, a recognition that any two people may for whatever reason be using certain words significantly differently,
  • Also, a desire for sincere, authentic, and fair communication, and thus a willingness not only to make the effort to help others understand what WE are trying to convey, but to also make OUR sincere best effort to understand what the person we are communicating with is trying to convey as well. Both ways.
  • Thus, when someone gives us their definitions for how they use their words, we owe it to them to take that knowledge on board – not to start using OUR words in the same way, no,but to hear THEIR words using THEIR definitions, not OURS.
  • Likewise, when someone asks us for OUR definitions for words we are using, we happily share that information, knowing that they are asking because they need it to be able to successfully understand what we have said to them. After all, how can we be unhappy or upset if they are sincerely trying to help us get our ideas across to them?
  • And pervading all of this, an appreciation and pursuit of greater and greater clarity – for the obvious purpose of more effective communication in both directions, with fewer missteps.

Any sensible person sincerely trying to communicate with another person would have no reason to find any of the above requirements unreasonable.

But if that sounds too burdensome for you, then you may not be interested in reasonable intelligent conversation. Unfortunately, there can be no reliable intelligent conversation without embracing the above Fundamental Requirements for Intelligent Conversation.

So before engaging in conversation with me, I would humbly ask you first go FRIC yourself. Then we can talk. 🙂