Examples of Hidden Meaning in Communication

Yesterday I wrote about how our speech conveys information in the direct meaning of what we say and also conveys additional information about us as a person. Our messages include the specific thing we said, and also something about how we are the type of person who knows about or cares about the thing we just communicated. This second layer of communication is very important, and is often more important than the information we actually express, even though we likely never acknowledge it.

 

As an example, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write the following in The Elephant in the Brain, “When you’re interviewing someone for a job, for example, you aren’t trying to learn new domain knowledge from the job applicant, but you might discuss a topic in order to gauge the applicant as a potential coworker. You want to know whether the applicant is sharp or dull, plugged-in or out of the loop. You want to know the size and utility of the applicant’s backpack.”

 

This example is really clear and we can see that the things being communicated are less important than the behind the scenes things that the communication tells us about the person. Have they been in situations that demand creativity, were they able to navigate those situations well, and can they now look back and clearly express what they learned from those situations? These questions are hard to ask directly, but the communication from the interviewee will give us answers to these questions whether they are directly asked or not.

 

As an example from my personal life, the other week I drew a river on a coworker’s whiteboard because I learned some really fascinating information about erosion and deposition within rivers from the Don’t Panic Geocast. The information I shared about rivers is not going to help either of us in our jobs or life in any meaningful way, but I found it interesting and wanted to share. What I was really conveying, however, was that I am the type of person who gets excited about science and fun geological processes. I was telling her, “hey, I’m the kind of person who picks up interesting but obscure information from across the world and can remember it.” If I just walked around saying that I would probably annoy everyone (not to say drawing rivers on other peoples whiteboards doesn’t) but at least in this way I can show my interests in the world and share a little bit about myself in a less obnoxious and intrusive manner.

 

We all do things like this at times in our lives. We are not conscious of it, because being conscious of it doesn’t actually help us be much better in conversations and social situations. Our brains continuously monitor, adjust, and respond to social situations, and we are able to send a lot of messages without either ourselves or the people we talk to actively noticing what we are doing during these conversations.

Two Messages

In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about the ways in which we act to signal something important about ourselves that we cannot outright express. We deceive ourselves to believe that we are not sending these signals, but we recognize them, pick up on their subtle nature, and know how to respond to these cues even if we remain consciously ignorant to them. In the book, the authors focus on how we use these cues in language and communication.

 

The authors write, “Every remark made by a speaker contains two messages for the listener: text and subtext. The text says, ‘Here’s a new piece of information,’ while the subtext says, ‘By the way, I’m the kind of person who knows such things.’ Sometimes the text is more important than the subtext … but frequently, it’s the other way around.”

 

It is important to acknowledge that sometimes the text truly is the important part of our message. Because we occasionally have really important things that people need to know, and because that information outweighs the fact that we are the one who knows it and shared it, we can use that as a screen for us in this game of two messages. We can believe that all our communication is about important important information because there are times where the things we communicate are crucial to know. Hanson and Simler’s idea above only works if sometimes it is true that the text is the important piece and if almost always we can plausibly say that we are just trying to convey useful information as opposed to showing off what we know or what we have learned.

 

No matter what, at the same time our communication says something about us and about what knowledge and information we may have. It can also say something about what we don’t know, which may be part of why we go to great lengths to make it seem like we were not ignorant of something – our language/knowledge might tell people we are not the kind of person who knows something that everyone else knows.

 

Our language also tells people that we are the kind of person who cares about something, or has great attention to detail, is strict and disciplined, or is from a certain part of the country/world. Some of these signals are fairly hidden, while others are more clear and obvious. When we look more closely at the way we signal in our conversation, we can see how often our words are only part of what we are communicating.

Speakers are Eager to Impress

The last few days I have been writing about communication and asking what our communication is really all about if it is not just about facts and conveying information. When just talking to someone or communicating anything we seem to be including a lot of information that we are not even aware of. One of the things we are showing off in conversation is that we are someone who should be kept around, because we have useful insights and thoughts into the world around us.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler look at this point directly. They write, “Speakers are eager to impress listeners by saying new and useful things, but the facts themselves can be secondary. Instead, it’s more important for speakers to demonstrate that they have abilities that are attractive in an ally.”

 

In his episode of the Conversations with Tyler Podcast, Hanson describes it as showing off your backpack of skills and abilities. We want to show off that we know interesting facts so that people keep us around to hear more interesting facts in the future. We want to show how well connected we are with other allies so that people want to stick by us to get potential benefits from those insider connections. We also want to demonstrate that we are able to find out useful knowledge that might help someone else in the future. We might have just shared a simple or interesting fact about our experiences or something we learned, but it can demonstrate a lot more about us than we recognize.

 

Over time, we likely won’t remember where we heard information first. We likely won’t remember exactly who told us what, but we will remember who we have had good conversations with in the past, and people will remember that we had a lot of helpful things to say about a given topic. What we say in this moment doesn’t matter, as long as we develop a pattern of being helpful and insightful.

 

All of this is happening in our conversations without us realizing how much it is taking place. Conversation is natural, and we don’t want to seem like we are only engaging in conversation to get something useful from someone else, otherwise we won’t truly build any allies and friendships. The brain works better for us when it is not aware of its own motivations in this instance.

Where are the Greedy Listeners?

“If exchanging Information were the be-all and end-all of conversation, then we would expect people to be greedy listeners and stingy speakers. Instead, we typically find ourselves with the opposite attitude: eager to speak at ever opportunity.” Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write this in the book The Elephant in the Brain as they attempt to understand exactly what is going on with human communication. The obvious answer for why we communicate and dedicate so much of our brains to language, speaking, decoding sounds, and interpreting meaning from the sounds produced by human vocal cords is because our early ancestors gained an advantage when they could use language to communicate important messages. Saying, you go left and I go right is a lot better than grunting with hand gestures if you are trying to sneak up on a buffalo.

 

When we talk we convey a lot of direct messages. We can tell someone how much we love and care about them. We can explain to someone how their computer works and what they need to do to get their internet back. Directly talking to someone allows us to give them a recipe and enables us to learn about current world events. The strait forward answer for why we evolved language is because there is a lot of data out there in the world, and we needed a way to transmit the information we have gained from one head to another.

 

Simler and Hanson, however, believe that language and communication are doing something less obvious for us. One reason they believe more is going on than simply conveying messages is that we don’t hold people in debt for our communication. We don’t share an interesting or meaningful fact, and then expect the other person to communicate something meaningful to us. We may obtain information at a great cost – years of school, spending our time at the city counsel meeting, staying up late with influential people at a bar to get any tidbits they may drop – but we give that information away without demanding reciprocal payment.

 

A second piece of evidence against communication simply conveying messages has to do with how eager we are to talk. If we really were just communicating information, then we would be the most amazing listeners ever. After all, the whole reason someone was talking was to give us important information. We wouldn’t waste conversation space with meaningless talk about the weather, which we all experienced in the morning and could look outside to see. We would’t eagerly tell someone about what we saw on TV or about the funny thing our dog did. We would instead make sure we communicated valuable information and we would only do so reluctantly, particularly if someone else had given us valuable information which we had eagerly consumed.

 

The way we communicate doesn’t follow these expectations, and seems to be about something beyond just conveying information. Communication is about more than the message and more than what we have learned and can share about the world. Tomorrow’s post will dig further into this idea.

Curious Conversations

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson investigate human communication and ask why we are so quick to speak, communicate, and share information we have acquired, even if we acquired that information at great personal costs. Humans communicate a lot, and we generally like to be the one talking and expressing something about ourselves and our experiences. The problem however, is that it would make more sense for us to do all the listening, and only talk when absolutely necessary or when we were getting a reward.

 

If I spend a lot of time reading a book and learning something interesting and useful, I should desire a reward for the cost of learning the information I know. Before I write a blog post about interesting information, pontificate at the water cooler, or tell my family something I find fascinating, I should ask to be compensated. Instead, what we usually see, is that we can’t wait to tell people about the interesting thing we have learned. We expend a lot of effort in learning new information, and then we give that information away as quick as we can to anyone.

 

We also don’t do a great job listening. Rather than spending a lot of time absorbing what the other is saying, we prepare ourselves for what we are going to say next, missing the entire thing that is actually being said as we mentally prepare for our turn to talk. From an economic standpoint, this does not make sense.

 

“We aren’t lazy, greedy listeners. Instead we’re both intensely curious and  happy to share the fruits of our curiosity with others.” Write Simler and Hanson, “In order to explain why we speak, then, we have to find some benefit large enough to offset the cost of acquiring information and devaluing it by sharing. If speakers are giving away little informational ‘gifts’ in every conversation, what are they getting in return?”

 

I’ll explore this idea a little more in coming posts, but the authors argue that conversation is not really (at least not solely or even primarily) about conveying information. We do a lot of group and alliance signaling in our conversation. We show how creative and insightful we are. We demonstrate to others that we are willing to go learn new and useful information that can benefit the whole group and we show how altruistic we are by sharing this information which we acquired at a great cost. These are important but often unrecognized or unacknowledged parts of our communication. When we speak and when we share information, we are doing much more than just telling people what is inside our head.

Non-Verbal Communication & Messages

Yesterday I wrote a bit about how non-verbal communication often happens below the level of our consciousness. However, just because it is something we don’t consciously recognize doesn’t mean that the messages conveyed are meaningless. I wrote yesterday about how non-verbal communication can allow us to communicate some messages slyly, implying things and making our intentions clear without us having to say what we really mean. Today, another quote on non-verbal communication from Simler and Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain expands on the role and meaning of non-verbal communication.

 

“Body language … is mostly not arbitrary. Instead, nonverbal behaviors are meaningfully, functionally related to the messages they’re conveying.” We have shared physical reactions to emotional states of being that seem to emphasize and align with the emotional state we are in. Across cultures, the authors explain, while words and manners of verbal communication change, a lot of non-verbal communication ques remain constant. Emotional excitement may be displayed through loud exclamations and lots of arm or body movements. Interest in something may result in us staring at the interesting thing, with our eyes widening, potentially changing our field of view.

 

We do these things and respond to non-verbal messages without necessarily realizing we are doing so. Once we start to look for it, however, we can start to notice similar patterns in body language that convey messages that go along with (or perhaps contradict) the verbal messages that we also convey. We can learn that certain non-verbal cues have specific meanings and we can learn to present ourselves a certain way to help reinforce the language that we are trying to get across.

 

Recently, my wife and I adopted a puppy and started training her. In one of our first lessons, the instructor taught us a little about reading the dog’s body language and non-verbal communication. My wife and I now know to look for hair on the back of her neck standing up when she growls, so we know if she is growing in a playful way, or if she feels threatened. This was invisible to me before it was pointed out, even though on some level I probably could still tell the difference between the dog’s attitude.

 

We humans do the same things in some situations. We may playfully wrestle with a loved one or children, and while we might be making physically dominant gestures, there are aspects of our body language and non-verbal communication that demonstrate that everything is just fun play. We can be taught to recognize these types of non-verbal cues, but most of us probably just pick up on them automatically. I suspect that some of us are better than others at noticing these cues, and that it would be very helpful for others to have some explicit explanation of these cues. Ultimately, the important thing to remember is that communication is not just about the words we use, and that unconscious (often) behavior can be directly related and included in the messages we convey, even if our brains don’t fully realize it. A lot happens beneath the surface, and we should acknowledge this and acknowledge just how much our brains don’t see when things are happening right in front of us.

Unaware of Body Language

Another area to add to my recent fascination with the conscious mind’s obliviousness is body language, or non-verbal communication. How we position ourselves in space, the way we move our eyebrows, and the tone of our voice are all important factors in our communication, but they are factors that we usually don’t have a lot of control over. In some instances, like formal job interviews or conversations we know are important, we can be more aware of our body language and focus in on these external cues that we don’t always notice, but in most conversations we usually just attend to the spoken word, and let the non-verbal communication flow below the surface (I want to note that the three examples of body language that I mentioned don’t even scratch the surface of all our non-verbal communication).

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write the following in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “We’re generally aware of the overall gist of one another’s body language, but we often struggle to identify the specific behaviors that give rise to our impressions.” From an evolutionary standpoint, according to the authors, it seems strange that our brains should be consciously ignorant of the information conveyed through non-verbal communication. It would make sense for our powerful brains to be attuned to any form of communication between humans to give us an extra edge in successfully moving through the world. Why we would not develop these skills seems counter-intuitive.

 

“Humans are strategically blind to body language,” they write, “because it often betrays our ugly, selfish, competitive motives.” Our non-verbal communication, and that of our friends, allies, family members, and competitors can reveal the sub-text behind the text. It can give away our true feelings or convey sentiments that cannot be stated out loud. By knowing but not knowing what is being transmitted through non-verbal communication, we express a message without being guilty of directly stating what we were trying to communicate. It gives us a powerful tool for sending messages in a covert manner with plausible deniability built in. This can help us and others get things done, but it also serves as an additional layer of protection with our interlocutors and outsiders. This is part of the reason that Simler and Hanson argue that we evolved strong non-verbal communication cues but did not evolve a conscious mechanism for identifying and picking up on them in many cases.

The Trouble with Labels

“The troubling thing about labels is that we very seldom have the exact same definitions for them,” Colin Wright writes in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. I am disappointed by how frequently we use labels without giving them much thought. Labels are a necessity and a way to convey a lot of information without having to provide extensive background and definitions for every little thing. Labels are also things we use to signal something about ourselves and they are also something we use to make fun of other people and groups to which we don’t belong. If you are not aware of the labels you use, you are not aware of how frequently you are using them for signaling or just how insulting labels can be to the people you label.

 

Wright continues, “as soon as you decide to watch for them, you realize how many labels we use in every discussion, even beyond the exploratory ones. But it’s worth the effort if you really want to learn, understand, and communicate clearly.” When we use labels haphazardly, we end up talking about different things from our communication partner. My concept of any given label is going to be different from your concept of that label, and even if our ideas are just a little off, what I am saying may not make any sense to you at all. Our conversation could devolve into an argument where we are each trying to argue that something is or is not something else, not realizing that we are both arguing with a different set of definitions for the thing we are arguing about.

 

Beyond just confusing conversation, my biggest fear of labels is that they will become subtle digs and insults at our communication partners. We may throw in a label here or there that we don’t think our interlocutor will recognize, but that will be recognized by other people in our social group. This allows us to make subtle insults at individuals or groups and allows us to talk behind someone’s back, insulting them in a way where we feel superior because they did not even realize that we insulted them. This is typical of the types of arguments we see online, and it is something that has the ability to absolutely destroy productive conversation. It can ruin opportunities to learn and it actively drives us away from becoming a more cohesive society. Recognizing when use labels in this way will help us to have more clear and constructive conversations, and if we can help other people recognize how they use labels, then we can begin to have more productive and rational discussions about the direction our society should move.

Will We Lose Conversations?

With the internet social media world we live in, you can always find the perfect niche community for your interests. I love podcasts and like geology and there is a perfect show for me: The Don’t Panic Geocast. I enjoy stoicism and thoughts about overcoming obstacles and I can literally find forums on Reddit all about Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way. In many other areas of my life I am able to find the perfect group of strangers online who share my interests, want to talk about the things I want to talk about, and share the same general worldview and background as me. This is fantastic for me personally and I am very comfortable listening to the geology podcast and reading about stoicism, but if I only engage in these communities then I risk losing my ability to communicate beyond these small niches.

 

Colin Wright describes his fears of a world where conversation becomes impossible in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. He writes, “One of the fundamental challenges we’ll face in the coming years, I think, will be figuring out how to have conversations … about anything and everything. How to have discussions about important things and relatively mundane things, and how we might have those conversations with a shared understanding that we’re trying to achieve the same thing, even if that might not immediately appear to be the case.”

 

The fear that Wright has is that we will become so accustomed to communicating within our own sub-communities that we won’t be able to have real conversations outside our groups. The words we use and the definitions we attach to those words will begin to shift and overtime will signify who is part of the group and who is not part of the group. Sometimes this will be obvious to both insiders and outsiders, but sometimes it won’t be obvious to either, and conversation will break down as each side fails to recognize that words are not being use in the same way. Similarly, certain things will become running jokes within a circle (like ice is a mineral in the Don’t Panic Geocast community) and we will make references that either intentionally or unintentionally leave other people out. This might help with bonding for our small group, but it can be alienating to people outside our group and can drive wedges further between our niche communities and the outside world.

 

If we end up in a world where we become so enclosed within our niche communities that we can’t have any real conversations beyond them, then we face a lot of negative consequences as a country and planet. Pragmatically working to solve problems may take a back seat to trying to enhance the status of ones community, or ones place within the community. Shared meaning could break down, preventing us from having real discussions about real values and priorities. If we cannot come together and step beyond our niche communities then we won’t be able to avoid identity politics and we will feel more isolated in the real world even if we feel deep connections with our online communities.

The Trouble of Probability

“Most people, it should be noted, are terrible at offhandedly understanding, or even estimating, probability,” Colin Wright writes in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Without specific training, human beings generally seem to be pretty bad at statistics and statistical thinking, as Wright states. Our ability to estimate how frequently something should occur or the relative risk of something is not as good as one would think considering the power of our brain to recognize patterns and help us evolve to the point where we are as a species.

 

We really didn’t evolve to be good at numbers. Humans evolved in small tribes that likely numbered 150 people or less. As hunters and gatherers we likely just didn’t deal with numbers that were so large that we needed complex statistics to understand them. The largest numbers we probably really focused on were 10 or 20 and we have enough fingers and toes to help us there. As our societies began to take shape and grow, numbers and statistics still were not the deciding things that determined whether ones genes were passed on or not. Story telling has always had a much greater influence on the human mind than statistics.

 

For most of us, the fact that we are bad at statistics probably doesn’t matter too much. We can invest in mutual funds or index funds, have someone else tell us how much money should be taken from our paycheck automatically, and we will be fine. But if we want to engage with public policy, if we want to do the most good we can do, and if we want to approach the world rationally and leave it better than we found it, we must not only understand a base level of statistics, we must be able to understand how little statistical grounding most people have for their decisions. Convincing someone to make donations to help indigent people is much easier if you can focus on a single individual with a compassionate story who needs help. Overwhelming a person with statistics regarding the number of people who need aid will not convince anyone that their action is necessary. Giving your neighbor or uncle a dizzying array of data points around climate change and global warming is probably less effective than focusing on a single whale that washes up with plastic bags in its stomach, less effective than a story about coral bleaching along the Great Barrier Reef, and less valuable than a visual story of storms destroying the house of someone who looks like your neighbor or uncle. We must work to understand science and statistics ourselves, and we must take what we learn in dry numerically dense academic papers and craft a story that shows people exactly what they will lose if they do not act, or how they can be a hero if they do take the action we encourage.