“Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”
This deceptively insightful comment, made by Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s remarkable play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, has been at the forefront of my mind lately, and I felt that the topic deserved at least a little written exposition. Sometimes it’s hard for me to write meaningfully on this page; this quote is a big reason why. It comes in the play at a time when Ros and Guil have been “playing” at discovering what ails the mad prince Hamlet. Their inquisition slowly turns to frustration with not only their inability to affect their present circumstances, but at the shadowy nature of the language they must use in order to do so. One truth about the nature of truth itself is that even if it is supposed to be absolute, as I believe, communication of many truths renders the interpretation subjective. In short, the truth I say isn’t always the truth you hear, which makes it hard (at least for me) to communicate effectively.
Consider the basic statement “It is cold outside.” Already I’m sure you can imagine numerous times that this simple phrase has caused you or others both headaches and goosebumps. If I go outside right now, come back in, and say “it’s not cold outside,” what I of course mean is that I don’t perceive it to be cold outside. I can do my best to think about what you might find cold, and might even come up with the better statement “I don’t think you would find it cold.” But even so this only vocalizes the truth about the first statement’s relativity. Here, our inability to communicate is hampered from the very fact that we must communicate in the first place.
This inability to express truth accurately is something that weighs heavily on me often, especially when I write here. I hate being misunderstood, and the thought that such misunderstanding could be my fault often compels me to seek out extremely well-defined (and sometimes more lengthy) ways to say what I want. One of the things I really like about English is the incredible availability of precision words, but that more specialized terminology often comes at the cost of an extra syllable or two (e.g. talking about politics: constituency is more appropriate than fans or even supporters). The more of these niche words I know, the more likely I am to search for them in any particular scenario instead of reaching for broad stroke, twitter-friendly words. And, to be honest, there is a part of me that enjoys beneficent over good because it just sounds better. Of course, along with this precision comes the risk that somebody out there won’t know the meaning of the word “maladjustment.” Communication can be thwarted even as one obtains greater tools to wield it effectively.
Ironically, these threats and limitations of communication are precisely what make effective communication all the more important. While it might not matter beyond a few minutes of shivering whether you and I have the same definition of “cold,” it may matter immensely whether we have the same definition of “friend,” “spouse,” “integrity,” “promise,” and so on. We owe it to each other to define our terms and reduce the amount of interpretation necessary. As I’ve also learned the hard way many times over, people are not always appreciative of conversations where one of the participants has to continually elucidate the denotations of his vernacular (okay, that one was on purpose). Words, for the obscene majority of the time, really are all we have to go on when expressing thoughts and meaning, and we do well not to let these slippery yet essential components of communication confound our ability to speak truth.