Clarity First – on understanding one another

What is difficult? [ about A Cognitive Substra...

What is difficult? [ about A Cognitive Substrate for Natural Language Understanding ] (Photo credit: brewbooks)

 

I think I’ve already said that clarity is the first priority in communication (especially written communication, which potentially could transcend the ages). I’ll probably say it again. What I won’t say, though, is that there’s no excuse for not being clear. There are lots of excuses.

Here are some of the things that limit clear communication:

 

  1. Language is an imperfect tool under the best of circumstances. It was invented by a bunch of rank amateurs, using a process of trial and error, and is constantly being reshaped by its users, most of whom are also amateurs. It’s a complex system of sounds/visual code associated with meaning, and while we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that our language necessarily must be able to express anything, this is in fact boloney.
  2. People (the users of language) are imperfect. They may be tired, rushed, or in the throws of some strong emotion. They also can vary widely in their natural language ability or acquired level of skill.
  3. Any language, and especially English, is not a uniform beast. Not only does it change over time, but it also contains variants at any given time (regional dialects, cultural idioms, jargon).  In order to understand each other, we have to agree on what the words mean, as well as on the basic grammatical structure – and we don’t always do either one.
  4. The interpretation of language is terribly context-dependent. Basically, we’re not all coming from the same place, and where we’re coming from varies with who we are, where we are, and what we’re doing on a moment-to-moment basis.

All things considered, it’s amazing we actually manage to understand each other fairly well most of the time.

So I’ll always forgive you for not being clear. It’s a little harder to forgive people for not at least trying to be clear, but even then I know there are times when communication isn’t really a person’s top priority. And whenever I realize that I’ve just been misunderstood, the first thing I do (well usually) is reexamine what I actually said to see if I can identify the problem. Did I just say it badly? Or is there some possible alternate context that I failed to take into account? Of course, if I’ve got the other person face-to-face, I can also explore their insights into the issue – or just try again with a slightly different approach.

One thing I learned from being on the teacher side of the education fence is that, no matter how carefully you word the question, someone will manage to misinterpret it. My reaction when this happened was always to feel bad. Not because I assumed the misunderstanding was my fault – because of course it wasn’t necessarily – but because it meant my attempt to find out what the person had learned about the subject of the question had failed. (That’s failure of the assessment tool, rather than failure of the student.) The student may or may have known the answer – and I’ll never know which it was. (I always hated to mark those questions wrong, and tended to be very generous with any partial credit I felt I could assign.)

Now, I have encountered teachers – and, of course, others – whose reaction to being misunderstood went something like, “well I know what I was trying to say, so if you didn’t understand me it must be your fault.”

That is a position I find pretty unforgivable.

 

 

 

 

 

Donnie Dale is dying… and still writing…

Eschscholzia californica

Eschscholzia californica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What would you do if you discovered you were dying? If you received a diagnosis of terminal cancer with an estimated two years to live, give or take six months?

What would you do with the time you had left?

A man I know named Donnie Dale is in that position. He’s a man who’s been a writer all his life. He made his living at it – not with fiction, but with magazine articles, mostly. That was his day job. On the side, though, he’s also been writing fiction all his life – novels and screenplays. He’s got a trunk-full of manuscripts. He had one novel published twenty years ago. He did it, I assume, the “traditional” way – which is what I call the “hard” way – but I guess he never struck that luck again.

Faced with limited time remaining, Donnie has set himself a goal.  His goal is to self-publish all those unpublished novels. He has a website set up for the purpose – for his “platform.” It’s at www.donniedale.com

And he’s still writing. He’s started a blog on his website and is posting his thoughts on whatever comes to mind, because he’s a writer and writers don’t stop writing for trivial reasons like impending death. His posts are well worth reading. He says he’s not afraid to die, and you can tell he isn’t lying about that. There’s nothing maudlin in what he has to say. He writes with honesty and with clarity (and artistry), and with pretty darn good grammar and punctuation, too. If you’re building your mental model of what good writing looks like, you could do a lot worse than run Donnie’s postings across your synapses.

I encourage you to visit Donnie’s website and spend some time there. Leave a comment so he’ll know you’ve been. We who blog have all had that sense of, “okay, I’m putting it out there; is anybody reading it?” More than anything else, writers desire to be read, and for Donnie the question takes on an added urgency. So please go: Read some of his posts, follow his self-publication odyssey, maybe watch for his books and give them a read. I think you’ll get something from the experience, and not just the warm fuzzy feeling of having helped a life-long writer achieve one final goal.

I met Donnie Dale because, until this week, he has been leading the joint meetings of the Alameda Writer’s Group and the Altadena satellite of the Independent Writers of Southern California, which meets at the Coffee Gallery on Lake Ave in Altadena on the 2nd Friday of every month.