The Delicate Art of Communication

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Often times I find myself in the position of having to interpret someone else's words.  Not because they are in German, French, Dutch, Spanish, or even Latin or Ancient Greek, but because I have no idea of the context of their question.  And so, inevitably, I need to ask questions about the context of another's question, when they are expecting a simple answer.  They, missing the reasoning behind my questions, become annoyed and continue to evade the vital piece of information I am trying to gather.  All, apparently, for the sake of avoiding a lengthy but clear explanation. 

So it started me wondering, why do we do it?  It seems, as a culture, we have become married to sound bites.  Little bits of information encapsulated within 140 characters, meant to keep our attention only for a few seconds.  Anything longer than that, we become inpatient, unable to wait for completion.  And so, we have been left as a culture to interpret the same.  And often those interpretations are misunderstood to our detriment. 

In the early days, before the days of television and the associated advertisements, people would enjoy the art of conversation.  Communication was clear, well spoken, and required thought and attention.  While advertisements were available, some with only one or two mentions, usually several paragraphs accompanied to explain the contents and it's relevance to the product.  I recall ads I've seen from the early 20th century, some from the 19th, or even the 17th century from documentaries that were very well versed.  Everything was made clear,

So what happened?  Is it because of Television, the microwave oven, or instant potatoes?  I wonder. 

Personally, I see a growth of assumptions as to what others are thinking as the problem.  People assume you have X knowledge, and base instructions off of that assumed knowledge.  For instance, I may be working on a project for one of my classes when a co-worker will ask me a question about putting OS information into a website.  The co-worker wouldn't explain what website it is, or in what context the OS question is being placed (we work with four different OS platforms), so I have to follow up with questions.  My questions ask what OS is being referred to, and in which context, and the answer I get back is, "I don't know, can you tell me".  Inevitably I need to see what the co-worker is looking at in order to understand the initial question. 

Similar issues in communication happen when I worked for eBay, Salt Lake Community College, and NEC.  Each time I would be presented with a problem that someone else has been trying to solve on their own.  They would then assume I had the same level of experience with this same issue when they call, without clarifying the issue itself.  Therefore it became my responsibility to get more information through probing questions.  It wasn't as though clients, co-workers, or customers didn't want to tell me the problem, it was just that they assumed I had the same level of experience they did, with the answer they needed.  While it was often true that I had the answer, I needed to know the full extent of the question before I could provide it, and have it be correct.

Don't see this as a complaint against customers, co-workers, or clients.  Far from it!  It's more an attempt, through writing, to find a cause for a disconnect in communications. 

Often, as I find with interpersonal relationships, it can be a problem of reading too much into statements and jumping to conclusions.  For instance, I may suggest to a friend that they clean out their storage of anything they have not needed, nor used in the past five years.  As I have friends that are, to a certain extent hoarders, it is a good opportunity to help them take stock of what is truly valuable instead of hanging on to stuff that may be "cute" at one time, or may have some obscure use in the distant future. 

But instead of taking me at my word, often times offense can be taken in assuming I have them throw everything away in storage, even priceless (either monetary or personal) heirlooms.  Nothing could be further from the truth, but it is inferred, and the friendship is strained until a big blowup happens and feelings are hurt.  Easily, the fault could be at my end, as I didn't specifically say heirlooms are safe from the purge.  What seems like an obvious exception in my mind becomes obscure in the face of taking offense.  So, yet again, because of my lack of clarity in all aspects, a friendship becomes strained. 

So, what can be done to repair the communication troubles that seem so common in today's society?  What do you think?