Why writing is not perfect communication

The most obvious part is that there is no perfect communication. Any time you try to take an idea from your brain and transfer it to another’s there will be loss or distortion of parts of that idea. That’s why we have conversations. We can exchange an idea and then refine it until each person is pretty sure the other gets what they are saying. In conversations we generally consider many things to make sure our conversational partner is with us. We look at their body language, their gaze, we listen to their tone of voice. Most times we know the people that we are conversing with, or the conversations are to get to know them better.

When we begin to print our ideas we take away many of the cues that allow us to help others clearly get our ideas. Text conveys no tone on its own. The difference between a lighthearted jab and a cruel insult can often be understood in vocalization, and better with body language. In text it falls to the receiver to add more levels of interpretation. We do not get to see people as they read our words. We cannot gauge reactions and cannot make clarifications. Those receiving our words will go forward with whatever misunderstandings they began with, unless we foresee the misunderstanding and write (sometimes far too much) to guide them to our exact standpoint.

I think that when we begin to write our thoughts and ideas down we as “writers” need to consider every part of the previous paragraph. I might make an offhanded comment on my face book page and trust that my friends know me well enough to tell that I am joking. On the other hand, I am not going to be surprised that someone from Montana that I met once at a dance exchange in Pennsylvania is kind of freaked out by what I said. Blogging goes a step beyond that. It introduces people who are strangers to you entirely, who may have one tenuous commonality with you to your ideas. Hyperbole and satire and certain types of humor are all but impossible without a large shared base of understanding. Sometimes these understandings come from more than the larger culture, but also the niches that people find for themselves. For example, American conservatives, who for things except political ideology share culture with America liberals don’t get that the Colbert Report is a joke. A joke about them even.

I hang out around parts of the internet that exposes me to the blogging of other dancers. It is usually a pleasure to read what others have to say about dancing. Some people I find to express ideas in ways that I get. They talk about topics that I’m interested in and they put them rather well. Others may talk about things that I don’t care about so much. They might not write well enough to engage me. I generally find that I don’t bother to read their work with any regularity. Not a big deal. Recently there has been a bit of tension between people that I only know of, because I read their blogs. Some of this tension, if not all of the tension, has come from the fact that readers have interpreted ideas differently than the writers meant them. In defending the posts people have said something along the lines of  “but [writer/ I’m] not [whatever label people used in criticism eg. sexist], [writer/I] was using [humor/ hyperbole] to make a point”. The problem here is exactly what was said before. I don’t know the writers. Lots of people don’t know the writers. The writers used language very similar to that which people who really believe the position use. There was little indication that they meant to be joking. Yet when the words went out into the world without tone, without face to face communication it was expected that the fact that it was a joke to come across.

I try very hard to make my indications clear. I’ve put disclaimers on my hyperbole. However I also know that people might find offense with things that I write. It may because I’m unclear. It may be because my experience is limited, and I don’t know all of the things that are possible. Call me on it. I’ll try and expand.


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Filed under community, performance, socialization, writing

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