Friday, April 30, 2010

On Communication, Intention, Perception, and the Need for Understanding

     For the past two days I have be thinking a lot about words and images and the role that emotions and the psyche play in our attempt to communicate with others.  There were three happenings this week that triggered my musings on these things. Yesterday there was'discussion' on the Natural Dyes group on yahoo concerning the environment. Yesterday was also the day that I went in to clean out my desk at the dictionary company where I had worked first as a definer of words then as an illustrator of words. And earlier in the week there was a posting on a blog of a piece of artwork that I am having trouble understanding.
     The artwork is an instillation piece by a fellow feltmaker who is very talented and whose work I respect. However, this new piece I am just not fully under standing. It certainly has made me think (and maybe that is the point) but rather than thinking about the piece itself I have been thinking about my own art. When I consider what this artist has created (and actually modern art in general) and I compare it to my own art I feel that mine is somehow lacking. I feel that my art is just making pretty things. My work has no message and the few pieces that I have tried to create that I wanted to "speak" I felt...some how more disconnected from. I think if my work has anything to say beyond "Here is a pretty picture of a tree" it is only about my own inner world.  But I know from comments that  others have made about how some of my pieces make them feel that this is just my perception.
    And perception is a key ingredient to communication that I think we often forget, especially when the conversation gets emotional. Listening is very complex. First we each have our own view of the topic at hand, sometimes these views seem similar, but since we are individuals with our own experiences and emotions our views are never exactly the same. Then there is the meaning behind the message, the speaker's experiences and emotions that sometimes are hidden behind the words. To really understand what someone is saying we need to try to understand where they are 'coming from'. By the same token we need to realize that what we hear has as much to do with where we ourselves are 'coming from.'  But listening in this mindful way takes time and can not be done in the 'heat of the moment'.
   Mindful listening is also very difficult when we are trying to communicate through email and short forum posts. We do not get the information that is conveyed through tone of voice, body language or facial expression. The fact that cyber communication is also often international adds a very basic language barrier. Working at the dictionary company, language and words were very much part of my daily life.  Words are added to most dictionaries based on how they are USUALLY used. There is no set or official spelling, pronunciation, or meaning.  And words change all the time. Some changes happen quickly, others over a very long time. To me, not all of the changes are positive, and certainly when the change is still new things can get dicey.
   The conversation on the Natural Dyes group yesterday was an example of this. The subject of the environment came up as it relates to the use of lichen for dyeing. The concern is that lichen grows slowly; I read that some of them can take a human life time to grow to the size of a human hand. Over-harvesting is a concern with any wild plant but especially with a slow growing lichen. Unfortunately the mention of the environment is now often equated with politics. It seems as though saying that I have concerns about global warming, or pollution, or the destruction of natural resources has become as politically incorrect as references to a person's race or religion. Since I do have concerns about the environment but I do not participate in politics I am now wondering how I am supposed to communicate my concerns without offending others.  If I use the old word I have to be sure to explain what my intention is in using that word. If I try to coin a new word I will have to explain what I mean until it catches on. Maybe instead I will create a new emoticon so that when I write the word 'environment' on the net I can add a political sign with a circle and slash through it. Although someone will have to inform me whether to use the ass or the elephant for the political sign since I don't follow politics.
 One last thing that I think gets forgotten when we try to communicate is that we have choices. The choice to listen, or read, or delete anything that we find offensive. The choice to listen mindfully.


  1. I read this post with great interest. (I think I know the installation of which you speak, and from the comments I've read on her blog, you are not alone in being a bit puzzled.)
    Communication IS so difficult, isn't it? Somehow, as a culture, we seem more ready to take offense or 'read something into' what is not actually there, than we used to be in the past.
    I don't know whether this is because irony has become so 'fashionable', lately, or that our 'prefered method' of information-gathering seems to be of the sound-bite variety, now?!?! Certainly, e-letter- or blog-writers must try to use language more carefully than we are free to in 'regular speech'.
    Anyway, thanks for writing about all of this. It's given me some good food for thought. XXO-

  2. Wow, Thank you Heather. I didn't think anyone would actually take the time to read such a long post that had no photos!:) It is nice to know that you found some food for thought. Your comment about irony is interesting. I think you are right. We do often read sarcasm or irony into e-communications.
    You hit the nail on the head when you said that "we seem more ready to take offense". I think this attitude is pervasive throughout society not just cyberspace. I know I am sometimes guilty of adopting this attitude, assuming that a person's intention was in some way against me instead of giving the benefit of the doubt.
    Thanks again. Diane
    PS Nice felt work on your blog...I love the silk gauze scarf with the blues...reminds me of the sea.