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.

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.

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.

Make Up Your Own Fiction

I am really fascinated by ideas of our personal narratives and how powerful the stories we tell ourselves can be. On some level I think we all understand this, and recently I have been thinking about the power of our narrative within political ideology. The Democratic Party seems to be criticized for creating a narrative where where people are hopeless and can’t make it without a little help. Conversely, the Republican Party seems to operate in a narrative where people can always pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just try harder. I don’t think either of these simple narratives about how the parties treat people is really accurate, and it is not what I am actually writing about today, just a quick example of how narratives can drive so much of our beliefs and ideas.

 

A quote from Fernando Pessoa in his book The Book of Disquiet translated by Margaret Jull Costa shows the power of narrative, “The truly superior (and the happiest) men are those who, perceiving that everything is a fiction, make up their own novel before someone else does it for them…” What Pessoa is saying is that we can all recognize the power of narratives in our own lives, and create our own stories rather than try to live up to stories that other people have made for us. His ideas in this quote align with a lot of the Stoic ideas and thoughts that I try to live by. His quote acknowledges that we are under pressure from other people to be the person that other people want us to be and to achieve a picture of success created by someone else. Writing our own story, however, gives us the chance to be our own person and to pursue a life on our own terms.

 

“Since life is essentially a mental state and everything we do or think is only as valuable as we think it is, it depends on us for any value that it may have.” A painting is only as valuable as we decide it is. A car is only valuable if we all recognize it as such. Any given activity is only valuable if we decide it is a valuable way to spend our time. There are certainly things we can all recognize as more valuable than others based on the use, form, and function of the thing, but at the end of the day, nothing has inherent value just on its own unless we decide that there is a value attached to it. We should all be aware of the value we place in ourselves, the things in our lives, and how we live so that we can craft a story about who we are that creates meaningful value in our lives and in the lives of others.

Rhythms and Routines

I started a new job a few months back and my commute time has doubled. I was already driving a good distance across Reno, NV (I know it is not LA, San Francisco, or Washington DC but it was still not fun), and now I am driving about twice as far to our State Capitol in Carson City to work for the Legislature. My drive time is now about an hour both ways, for a total of two hours of commuting daily. In addition, where I work has less amenities in the office, which means I need to bring more, prep more, and plan more with what I eat and what I need for the day. What this new job has created for me, with new limitations on my time, is a daily routine where my entire day feels like it is in a time crunch and where I need to be on point at every second if I want to fit in everything and be prepared to have a successful day at work.

 

I am leaning very heavily into my daily routines now. I wrote in the past about Colin Wright’s thoughts on routines in his book Come Back Frayed and Michael Bungay Stanier’s views on habits in his book The Coaching Habit. Today I have another quote from Wright and his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Right now I am relying on a particular rhythm to help me be successful and live life the way I want to live. But, the rhythm I am building right now does not have to be permanent. I do not need to live this way forever and I can choose whether I want to maintain this rhythm and let it dictate my life, or whether I want things to change. About our rhythms and routines, Wright includes the following, “Many of us fall into rhythms relatively early in life, and then decide, either consciously or subconsciously, that the rhythm we’ve come to know is the totality of life. This is it. This is how things are. The evidence of me experiencing life in this fashion seems to be supported by the hypothesis that this is how life is meant to be; the only way it can be. But this isn’t the case.”

 

I know I can change my daily routine and I’m sure future jobs will necessitate a change in my routine, but a bigger question for me to think about is whether I want to change the general rhythm of my life or whether I want to continue with the general orientation of current life. I try to exercise daily. I try to do a lot of reading, especially during my lunch break, and I try to write each morning. Many of my evenings end up being spent with my wife watching tv, especially if we eat, but none of these pieces of my routine have to be a constant part of my life forever. For me, and for anyone else, little experiments in life are always possible. I could decide that I want to try something different from running or spin biking and try a boxing gym for workouts. I could decide that I don’t want to pursue reading any further and try doing things that are more social and engaging. And at an even bigger level, I could decide that I don’t need to live in a house and could find a small apartment, spend less money on my living arrangement, and take a more flexible job closer to home with different hours to open up different parts of the day.

 

What is important to remember, and what Wright is saying in his quote, is that life is flexible and full of possibilities. We don’t have to settle into any one particular way of living and we can try on different life styles. Just because we were raised a certain way, just because we happen to find ourselves relying on (or simply falling into without noticing) specific routines does not mean that our lives have to be set in one particular way from now until we die. We can have great success and achieve a lot of goals within our routines, but by shaking them off and experimenting, we might find new avenues of life that resonate with us on a more profound and meaningful level, or we might just find a renewed passion for something in life that we did not know could give us meaning and value.

It Comes Down to Purpose

John Boyd was a brilliant military officer, strategist, and consultant who helped shape a generation of military leaders. Boyd is the focus of one chapter in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, titled, “To Be or To Do?” Boyd, Holiday explains, was a terrific air force pilot and a very insightful and influential mind within the armed services. He raised to the rank of Colonel,  but never was promoted to become a General and is not someone that most people have ever heard of. What Boyd represents for Holiday, and why he is an important figure for the book, is someone who chose his duty and service to his country over his own power, pride, and greed. Boyd set out to be the most meaningful version of himself possible, not to be the most impressive, rich, or comfortable version of himself. Holiday wrote the following about a piece of advice that Boyd gave to a young officer (emphasis Holiday’s),

 

“The choice that Boyd puts in front of us comes down to purpose.  What is your purpose? What are you here to do? Because purpose helps you answer the question “To be or to do?” quite easily. If what matters is you – your reputation, your inclusion, your personal ease of life-your path is clear: Tell people what they want to hear. Seek attention over the quiet but important work. Say yes to promotions and  generally follow the track that talented people take in the industry or field you’ve chosen. Pay your dues, check the boxes, put in your time, and leave things essentially as they are. Chase your fame, your salary, your title, and enjoy them as they come.”

 

What we can learn from Boyd’s life is that there are often conflicts and decisions that we have to make about doing meaningful and valuable work and trying to receive recognition and praise for who we are and what we do. Quite often, we can do meaningful things and be well compensated and rewarded, but not to the same degree as those who may do less meaningful things but make more of an effort to capture attention, please others, and maintain the status quo which rewards the talk but not the walk. This can be seen in the way that we compensate teachers relative to financial traders or in the way that lawyers like Bryan Stevenson working to protect the rights of death row inmates are compensated relative to lawyers like Michael Cohen who have worked in less meaningful fields for wealthy and powerful clients.

 

The lesson that Holiday tries to teach with the life of Boyd is that we can be content with living a life where we don’t feel that we get all the dues we deserve, where we don’t get all the praise and attention from others that we may feel we have earned, and where we are not always recognized for our valuable contributions equal to the impact of those contributions. But living this life is not somehow a loss. The praise and recognition I just described ultimately hold no real value in our lives. Making a difference, working on meaningful projects and helping shape the world around us in a positive direction is what brings true value and meaning to life. The conflict is that success is typically viewed through the lens of the first set of rewards, and it is true that we need to earn a decent wage to be able to eat, house ourselves, and live comfortably and happily. I don’t exactly do a great job of following the advice of Holiday in my own life, but it is helpful to keep his advice in mind and recognize when I am living for my ego and pursuing recognition and praise as opposed to when I am living to do meaningful work and striving to make a difference in the world.

Truly Impressive

“Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.”

 

Ryan Holiday wrote this quote in his book Ego is the Enemy which I read a couple years back. I was thumbing through some of my highlights in the book last week and saw this quote and it has been in my head non-stop. In my own life, I have experienced numerous times where I have been motivated by recognition and I have wanted to get involved with something because I wanted to be seen actively engaging with what I thought looked impressive. Quite frequently I have made decisions that sounded good and sounded impressive even when I knew the thing I was choosing was not a good fit for me or not I wanted or would bring me the most value. For much of my life, I have tried to impress people, but I have not been willing to put in the work to be truly impressive.

 

I have been afraid to work really hard on something and either fail at that thing or to just not like where I end up. I have had great ideas of things I could do to make an impact, and then I have been afraid to get engaged and going with those things because I was afraid that the time commitment would be too much or that I would have to put in too much effort to try to convince other people that what I was doing was important.

 

In all of the examples above, I have been worried about my own ego and my first thought has often been, “how can I impress other people without having to try too hard and without having to put myself in a risky position?” What I should have been asking the entire time has nothing to do with other people’s perception of me or with being impressive at all. What I should have been asking is, “where is there a gap or a great need in our society, and is there something I can do to help make that better?” The focus here is not on identifying an area that needs improvement for the glory of being the one to step in and save everyone, but instead, the focus is on living purposefully and using our time, energy, good health, and other resources to make a positive impact on the world. In this way, being impressive is not a goal but an byproduct of doing meaningful work and engaging positively in society.

 

If we set out to be impressive, we will likely do less and feel more stressed about who we are and where we find ourselves. If instead we set out to help alleviate the pain, suffering, and shortcomings of our society, we will end up doing more impressive things and becoming a more impressive person overall. In the end, impressing others has nothing to do with becoming an impressive person or doing meaningful work. Impressing others is really about boosting our ego, and is short lived. To really be happy with oneself and to know that one is making a difference, one must set out to do meaningful things to help others rather than oneself.

Nuances in What We Say and Mean

I really enjoy language. I listen to a podcast about language, Lexicon Valley, I studied Spanish for my undergraduate degree, and I’m currently learning sign language. There are a lot of ways to say the things that are on our mind, and a lot of nuance in how we say the things we want to communicate.

 

I find this fascinating, but it can cause real challenges for us in our relationships with others. Colin Wright in his book Some Thoughts About Relationships describes communication as “the mortar that holds together whatever structure you decide to build.” It is our communication which establishes and maintains our relationships with others and gives them meaning. The defining characteristics of our relationships can often be understood by the language and words we use. How we say something, the particular meaning we pull from a word, and the vocabulary we use all signify something about the relationships we have with others.

 

Complicating this is the nuance running through our communication. I’m in Reno, Nevada, and the way we speak is heavily influenced by trends in the San Francisco Bay Area. We speak a little bit differently than my fellow Nevadans in Las Vegas, who are more influenced by the language of Los Angeles. In his book, Wright encourages us to remember that there are many differences and nuances in the way we speak and use words. This is important to remember because these small nuances can change the meaning and definitions we attach to what people say and how we understand ourselves relative to others. He writes,

 

“Remember that everyone speaks a different language, and not just the English, Spanish, Japanese sense of the word. The vocabularies we use for things are different from person to person, and as such, incredibly important words like ‘relationship’ and ‘love’ and even ‘communication’ will mean something slightly, or vastly, different to each individual who uses them.”

 

For me, this is a reminder that I don’t know everything. I don’t know what is happening in another person’s head and I can never be perfectly sure that we are using the same word or phrase in the same way. We might be using the same word, but have a slightly different sense of what that word means. It is important that we are clear and concise with our speech and that we listen intently and ask clarifying questions when others are speaking so that we can better understand them and be more sure of the meaning we attach to what is said. This can lead to better alignment within a relationship, strengthening its overall ties and bonds.

Living With Others

I often think about status and about how we act to try to increase our status. When human beings were evolving and we lived in small tribes of 50 to 250 people, status mattered quite a bit. Higher status people were able to reproduce and pass their genes along, while lower status people were not able to reproduce and pass their genes on. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain in their book The Elephant In The Brain, we evolved to be status seeking machines, constantly aware of our status relative to others.

 

Today, this drive for status can be dangerous and drive us to act in ways that are more harmful toward ourselves and others than we often realize. Housing is an example that is coming to mind for me right now. Pressures to show our success lead to desires for houses with big common spaces for entertaining, even if we only host a party once every two years, and many people live with mortgages that max them out to afford the extra (and unnecessary) home space. In a race for status and signaling our wealth and importance, we are often willing to strain our finances to move up the social ladder.

 

What is worse, is that status is relative. For me to have more status among my co-workers or a group of friends, other people must necessarily lose status. Someone with more status than me will undoubtedly feel their status diminish if my status rises and begins to equal their status. The work we accomplish, the success we achieve, and the people we are, can fade away when we focus on status, and many of us we have experienced the desire to destroy another person’s life to either maintain or enhance our status.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh thinks this is a problem in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness.  Hanh discusses the ways that meditation can help us live a more mindful and intentional life, and specifically, he writes about the ways that we can improve our relationship and values. Writing more about actual life and death he says, “We can no longer be deluded by the notion that the destruction of other’s lives is necessary for our own survival.”

 

His advice is something we should apply to our selves when we think about and recognize our drive for ever greater status. At a certain point, we have to recognize how much our actions, thoughts, and decisions are driven by status, and we have to find a way to value ourselves outside of our relative status position. By doing this, we can live at ease with others and it will no longer be necessary to tear someone down for us to rise on the social ladder and feel better about ourselves. It is not necessary for us to ruin another person’s reputation and destroy their social status for us to live a full and meaningful life. Just as we should value the other person’s physical life, we should value the other person, and allow them to pursue status while we focus on providing real value to the world.