In the past 24 hours, I’ve experienced a series of communication breakdowns, both large and small. The first was when I ordered a decaf iced latte at an airport Starbucks and the woman taking my order interpreted those sounds as “iced tea.” The second was when, after a long day of travel, I hurriedly responded to a text message only to realize a few minutes later that it was talking about that not this and my tired brain had somehow mixed up the two and cause me to answer a question that wasn’t being asked. More serious and significant is the third incident, which has actually been occurring for over a week but I finally only understood this morning. This one involved my sister telling me something born out of a world roiled by major and difficult changes with deep emotional impact, and me interpreting it through the lens of pragmatic concern. In other words, I categorized what she was communicating as a frustrating obstruction to what I thought was a sensible and easy way to help her, and was reinforcing my perception of this situation with an entire history of personality and family dynamics. Which was not entirely fair.
There were probably many other communication misfires and failures in that span of time that I didn’t even notice because I, like so many others, default to believing my own perception of reality is the correct/only one and assume that everyone is understanding me and I them just fine. But these three interactions remind me just what a fraught and fragile path anything we express travels on its way from our heart and mind to the heart and mind of another human being. I learned about “affective filters” my first year of teaching and how easy it is for a teacher to assume she is being explicitly clear about an assignment, only to have students turn in something that doesn’t even come close to resembling what she thought she assigned. These filters are everywhere. It could be something as basic as noise interfering with your ability to hear what someone is saying to you. It could be that you are too tired to process and understand what they are saying. It could be that the way you feel about them changes how you hear what they are saying. It could be that the way you feel about yourself does. It could be what someone once said to you ten years ago that you’ve never forgotten. It could be your self-consciousness about sweating too much and that maybe they’re noticing. It could be forty previous conversations you’ve had and your assumption that this one is exactly the same. It could be that you see the world and think in a way that is so different from the other person, that even the most seemingly obvious thing to you is a mystery to them. And vice versa.
When you think about it, it’s kind of a minor miracle that we ever understand or are understood at all. And, like so many things in this broken world that is also full of grace, while there is such possibility for misunderstanding and the damage and loneliness it causes, that very likelihood makes those moments of true understanding and connection all the more profound. I suppose that’s why, at least on an intuitive level, I’ve always gravitated towards written communication. As a reader, I have the chance to process and think about what’s been written and test, at least to some degree, whether I’m understanding things the way they’re meant to be understood. At the same time, the best moments of reading are when none of that carefulness is needed, because the words on the page leap out as something deep and true in my own heart and mind, and the author has named it in a way I recognize even though I have never been able to name it myself. This, among many other reasons, is why book lovers are so passionate about their books–they recognize them as true intimates. The same thing applies to the writing side of things. On the one hand, when I write something, I have the same opportunity to be more careful and thoughtful about what I am saying and how it might come across to someone else. I also have the opportunity to share some of those deeper parts of myself that might cause someone else’s heart and mind to leap with recognition. And when that happens, and I am actually made aware of that, it is a source of deep joy.
I started reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet on yesterday’s flight, and based on what I read, part of me wants to categorize all of this as an introvert’s issue. I suppose, at least in the way I’ve written about it, it primarily is. But even if all those extroverts are just chatting away out there and not worrying very much about deeper meaning and significance, I’m pretty sure they are still feeling the effects of communication that does and doesn’t work. We all want to know and be known. And we all, in spite of all those filters (including self-protective fear), want to span that distance between ourselves and the Other. Which makes me think that some of our obliviousness to our gaffs isn’t always such a bad thing. It buffers us enough to keep trying and get to those moments of true connection.