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.

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.