Specifically Speaking

There is a frequent exchange between both strangers and friends that goes thus:



“How are you?”

“I am fine, how are you?”

“I am fine.”

The many versions of this all-too-common-exchange happen between us, daily. It is the norm to simply exchange greeting, question-with-expected-answer, followed by reciprocal-question-with-expected-answer and then get on with your business.

If in fact, that is the purpose of your communication.

Language, for all its oddities, is a remarkably simple thing. Its purpose is very one-dimensional: the exchange of information from one point to another clearly. It is that last word, clearly, that does not seem to have a great deal of meaning. That is not to say this is a modern phenomenon (it likely is, but I do not have enough of a linguistic background to express an opinion), but my anecdotal observations indicate that irrespective of how long a problem it may have been, it is very much the case now.

There is a massive problem with the introductory example, and that is for the purpose of language – actual communication – it is meaningless. Nothing is communicated in any version of the above exchange between two people. If put another way, no new information is exchanged between those who are speaking to each other. The argument may be that information is exchanged, that both people now know the other is fine, but does this really tell you anything?

A common complaint among teachers of language at school level is that children are incapable of expressing their meaning for any kind of desired effect. The wrinkled noses among you may already be presupposing that it must be a consequence of those new-fangled devices or the idiotification of social media. However, I think the answer is more rooted in a generational neglect of using words for their correct meanings. True, we have swapped communication for connectivity, but the underlying sickness being suffered by language was likely there in the first place. I beg that you accept this aspect of my opinion as the pure conjecture that it is. My only justification for believing non-specific language use has been around longer than social media is how I have heard older people speak with precisely the same absence of purpose as children.

Still, I see those wrinkled noses, and they ask a very good question: surely, this is all semantics?

No. Not at all.

Now, more than ever, when the fabric of reality is being dissolved in front of our eyes, we need to be able to not only separate reality from fantasy, but be able to grab the real world with both hands. That is the purpose of language, to make clear thoughts that are expressions of observations of a world that is real and that exists.

Still not convinced? Fair enough, let us begin small.

A child is in a room and asked about the state of a dustbin.

“It smells,” the child says, “the bin smells.”

The child has made a verdict, that the bin smells. Not only that, but they committed to the idea twice through syntax indicating confidence in their answer. You understand that the child considers the bin smelly and the child is assured that they have explained this information to you correctly.

But I smell. You smell. Flowers smell. The fact that an object may smell does not necessarily mean that it stinks. Point of fact, you could take this example one step further and say that the bin has a smell as opposed to simply existing in a state of smelling.

So, the question has to be asked: is information still conveyed in the above example where the wrong words were used but everyone understood the speaker’s meaning?

Yes, you could say so, in this instance. However, there is no surety that this would consistently be the case. The fact that everyone in the room understood the child’s verdict in this case, and could continue to do so in multiple cases to come does not undo the damage of their non-specific reply.

This is the unpleasant part. If a child is raised not using the right words, but also not using the necessarily wrong ones, they begin to develop a pattern of speech that is open to ambiguity. If anything is an enemy of communicating clearly it is ambiguity. Of course, the child will later have difficulty expressing themselves in their language work at school if they have never truly learnt to express themselves correctly in the first place. The failings from here continue to multiply. If an adult has no linguistic grasp on the reality around them, how are they expected to articulate their emotions to a lover who has wronged them, or to a confidant who needs advice… the absence of correct, clear articulation creates a feedback loop where a person – in being unable to correctly yield their vocabulary for the real world – starts distorting and undoing their perceived reality.

And if ever there was a symptom of the modern human, it’s living in a mind that is fantasy where reality is incapable of being understood. Our terrible misunderstandings of the world begin with our terrible misunderstanding of the language we use to express it. Correct the one, and the rest – just might –  fall neatly into place.

However, there appears to exist within the realm of our common anti-communication the understanding that I do not have to express myself correctly and that is alright. We constantly fail to communicate clearly, but because our words are largely understood, such exchanges are excused as communication having largely been achieved, if not completely.

Take for example the opening exchange. All the two participants want to know is if the other is fine, or conversely, if the other is not fine. The desire to know more is not reflected in the exchange. What do we take away from this?

An absence of empathy.

So many of us struggle through life with the belief that the world – that is, those close to us – do not understand who we are. We rummage through the closet of social-interactions convinced that other people are not tuned into the minutiae of who we are and the solar empires we bring to the dinner table.

Yet, we fail to consider that we do not give people an opportunity to understand. In the absence of our clear and comprehensive ability to communicate, we lack the skills to turn the windows into our lives from opaque to clear.

Non-specific language is the start of our socially stunted limbs. By falling into the conventions of simply being, “fine”, of our day’s being, “great” and our weekend being, “chilled”, we lose the ability to offer insight to others about ourselves and who we really are.

How often, in the opening exchange, has the word, “fine” actually been far from the truth? How many times a day/a week/a month are you put in a position where your non-specific answers are tantamount to a lie about your current state of being? No, I am not fine. I had a weekend where I broke the rules of my diet and my children are not returning my calls.

It takes time. I still regularly catch myself speaking the way I was shown as opposed to expressing what I really mean. It is also an exercise in asking yourself how much insight other’s need about you? Yet the fact is, in giving people meaningful, personal and clear responses, I am allowing others to see me for who I really am. I am breaking down the pillars of my anxiety, by creating a world that isn’t shrouded in vague descriptions and ambiguous meaning. Bizarrely, I have less conversations in my head, and more with real people.

Perhaps I am being pedantic? Maybe the world’s problems come from some other place that has nothing to do with how clearly we express ourselves? Pinning a solution to the language we use to define the world and ourselves may be a gross oversimplification.

And though…

… in time where insincerity is an accepted denomination of social currency, it’s nice to know my little voice is that much more clear in a world that – to me at least – has become a little more real.

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