Re: language and communication

Subject: Re: language and communication
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 24 Nov 2000 12:04:27 -0800

Damien Braniff wrote:
> Doing some tidying up recently I came across some information from a
> conference I went to a
> couple of years ago and thought I'd share it with the list as it's
> fairly quiet at the moment. The
> general gist was that much of what we do is mediated through language
> and that we often expect
> too much (or too little) from what is said or written.
> Language is BAD at:
> conveying complex information
> spatial information
> logic and cold analysis (we invented maths and other 'languages'
> for that)
> conveying emotions, senses and feelings
> Language is GOOD at:
> Gossip, grooming and reputation setting
> Showing off
> Second (3rd, 4th etc) guessing
> Deception and delusion
> Marking identity thro' dialect
> This led on to the fact that we need to be good communicators, not just
> good writers and that
> language should simply be one of the tools we use to get across our
> message.

I agree enthusiastically with your conclusion while wincing at the
idea of being a "communicator" (what's next? Verbal-Graphical
Information Architect and Engineer?).

However, I question the summary of language that leads up to it.

For one thing, instead of saying "good" and "bad," it would probably
be more accurate to talk in terms of what language does easily or -
more likely - in terms of what most people are trained to do with
language, or what it is most often used for. All the things that
language is supposed to be bad at can be achieved by a writer who is
skilled or willing to take the time.

For another thing, the list ignores the fact that the amount of
organization in any use of language can vary enormously. Goals like
gossiping require little organization compared to conveying spatial
information or conveying complex information. This organization may
not be innate to language, but to talk about the effectiveness of
language without thinking about organization is very close to

In addition, this list also under-estimates the degree to which
picking up information from graphics is as much learned behaviour as
language is. Perspective, for example, is a convention that needs to
be learned. And some people (including me) can be fairly stupid when
reading graphics. For example, if you are giving me directions to
some place I have never been, I am far more likely to get to where I
am going if you tell me, "Take the second left, then the third
right" than if you show me on a map. Interestingly enough, after I
have been some place, seeing a map can help me remember a path, but
definitely not before. Similarly, I rarely recognize somebody I've
never met from a photo. Part of the reason for this handicap may be
that I'm a hyper-literate, who would rather read a book than watch
TV or a movie, the two great graphical media of our times. However,
that can't be the whole answer, because I've met many people who
aren't hyper-literates who have the same problem.

Then, too, conveying information as a graphic doesn't always help.
In the PowerPoint Age, many people feel that a talk isn't complete
without a flow chart. Countless times, I've seen presentations with
little graphics that are so trivial that their points could be
conveyed in a sentence or two. I've also seen graphics that
over-simplified complex processes, or did absolutely nothing to
convey the relation between two complex ideas.

Personally, I've always found the digital/analog distinction to be
useful. One of the most useful generalities in this distinction is
that digital communication (such as language) allows detail and
focus, while analog communication (such as graphics) conveys the big
picture and overviews.

In short, I still think that a mixture of media is worthwhile, but
for different reasons.

Bruce Byfield, Outlaw Communications
Contributing Editor, Maximum Linux
604.421.7189 bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com

"If religion is the opium of the people, then TV is the heroin."
- Kev Carmody

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