Communication: Essential to Problem-Solving as a Group

Scream Blame to Lose

It’s hard for me not to think of League of Legends as a social experiment: Five strangers, thrown together to solve a problem (made up of a series of problems). Sometimes it works incredibly well, other times, it goes incredibly poorly. I still don’t know if the single most important factor for success is execution or communication, but I have learned that communication matters a lot more than I initially thought it would.

After thousands of games, I have noticed some unsurprising patterns: optimism, clear and specific communication, and goal-oriented planning are consistently effective; negativity, blame, malice, and angry generalizations routinely lead to failure. While some games can be won with relatively little communication at all, I have seen negative communication cause losses that would not have happened amid total silence.

Like a lot of Americans, I’ve been reflecting on the most recent election cycle. As someone with an interest in language, political science (the effort to describe and explain political phenomena), the effect of media on individuals and society, and a little US history, I am particularly struck by the current state of political discourse in the US.

A Nation of Arguments

The USA is a weird country from its inception. Before, during, and after the Revolutionary War, the country was arguing- constantly and continually- about the correct decisions for its political structure. What makes this weird is not that there was disagreement among the revolutionaries—every revolution has factions some internal struggles. What makes the US peculiar is that the revolutionaries kept debating, writing, and arguing. For years. Decades, even. They didn’t kill each other (except Burr v. Hamilton?), they didn’t just decide the other side was too stupid to see reason and give up, and they didn’t quit. This pattern for ceaseless debate and argumentation was the hallmark of US politics until about 1852, when the last two really great debaters and negotiators (Clay and Webster) died—and the nation plunged into Civil War less than a decade later.

But despite ongoing differences in an ever-expanding nation, the Federal government continued to debate and argue until they found a way to work together. Throughout most of the 20th century, Congress was divided into Red and Blue teams, but those teams repeatedly worked together for the greater good of the nation.

Echo Chambers and Intolerant Vitriol

It’s always hard to tell how your own time period compares to the times you never experienced. But I think there’s some objective evidence to support the claim that the US is more divided than it was at any time in the 20th century—and maybe at any time outside of its civil war.

There are a lot of problems and concerns facing the American people and the US political structure. Though it appears less immediate than some of those problems, I am most concerned about the condition of discourse. I am most concerned about this because it is an indispensable tool for politics in the US. If citizens and politicians cannot (or will not) rise to the level of the first 100 years* of political discussion and effort, I don’t know how much of America (as ideals, laws, political norms, etc) will survive the next few years. I am concerned about the future of a nation founded on debate and compromise that has no capacity for debate and no tolerance for compromise. I don’t know what comes of an America that loses its ability and willingness to doggedly wade through complicated political issues to reach understanding and compromise. If the past is any indication, it looks like 1860-1865.

I hope I’m just being an overly- anxious alarmist. I’ve had plenty of games where communication broke down, but then recovered.

 

*Let’s be real: it was not all sunshine and roses. Jefferson v Adams is up there in for the dirtiest smear campaign in US history. And the only assault of a US Senator, BY a US Senator, on the SENATE FLOOR, happened just before the Civil War. I don’t want to over-romanticize the past.

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The Premise is Always Implicit- So is Every Possible Premise.

Something that makes people suspicious about soft sciences is that they are largely constructed by observing some data and then crafting a story to explain what is observed. “Why did people vote this way in the election? Why did consumers buy those products? Why does this man feel an aversion to bodies of water?” What troubles some people is that there are often multiple plausible explanations for a poorly understood, vaguely or partially observed phenomenon.

The same troubling reasoning is the same reason some writing is unclear. Good (but not great) writers often omit their premises and get straight to the interesting parts of the argument, such as the conclusion or the response to the conclusion. They often feel that their basic premises are implicit within their writing, so it is a patronizing waste of time to explicate fundamental principles which seem obvious. However, while it is true that for any valid reasoning, the premises are always implicit in the conclusion, it is also true that all possible premises are potentially implicit until the field of premises is restricted and identified.

In claiming that “Abu should not have murdered Igor,” I may well be resting on premises that murder is morally and legally wrong. If Abu provided materials for Igor’s suicide, I may be further employing a premise that Abu’s actions constituted murder. It may seem so obvious to me that Abu murdered Igor that I jump to the evaluation of that action. The premise that Abu, in fact, murdered Igor may not be so obvious to my audience.

The trouble is that there are some premises that we take as so fundamental that they do not need to be explained or discussed. However, that set of fundamental axioms is slightly different for each of us. Conveying information (say, in the business world) can be difficult when we aren’t sure how much the audience/recipient already knows.

Clarity in Communication

http://xkcd.com/1028/ The alt-text (discovered when you hover your cursor over the comic) is particularly relevant.

Clarity is in the final comprehension, as the proof of pudding is in the eating. Clarity is not about being able to be understood, or even about being so clear as to not be misunderstood: it is about actually being understood.

Legal writing is meant to be clear, but it is famous for being confusingly unclear. By being overly specific, general meaning is lost. Legal writing is difficult because it tries to address two audiences: the earnest, non-technical crowd who only wants the general meaning and idea, and the conniving, dastardly, sneaky crowd who looks for any slight ambiguity to exploit for gain.

Our common language utilizes non-specificicty and ambiguity as a sort of social lubricant, allowing conversations to flow along and meaning to be conveyed lightly. When lawyers write even simple things, they do so expecting every possible contest of even the most basic statement.

People ask the fair question: “Why can’t lawyers just write simply so we can understand?” One reason is that understanding is not entirely dependent on the words; a lot of understanding is gleaned from context, situation, and background understanding. The awful writing of lawyers shows what communication would be like if we were robots and not humans. Cultural shorthand allows us to communicate ideas without pinpoint specificity- but we experience confusion when unspoken background assumptions do not overlap quite right. When communication is a product of working together with a common background and a common goal, the language can be imprecise and simple. When communication occurs in anticipation for a battle, with different aims and understandings, the language must be as excruciating and as tortured as the human relations it symbolizes or indicates.

Lewis Carroll’s conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice questioned whether it was the same thing to “mean what you say” as to “say what you mean.” I think that common language is when we mean what we say. When we attempt to “say what we mean,” we find we wax verbose, place many qualifiers, modifiers, and all sorts of limitations on every clause and term. It is a very difficult thing to say precisely what we mean—no more and no less. It may be an impossible task to communicate on both the cooperative and competitive levels.

Writing can only have value if it is read and understood.

The Importance of the Passive Voice.

 The passive voice allows us to posit ideas and scenarios in ways that are open. They allow for a multitude of people to be both cause and effect in the scenario. They turn the focus away from the individual and towards the idea at stake. The rejection of the passive voice is the rejection of possibility, openness, and imagination.

Compare these statements: “X could be understood in terms of Y” rather than “X is a function of Y,” These appear to be very similar, but they have very important distinctions. The latter is certain and definite, while the former allows for interpretation, disagreement, caveats and qualifications. While some scoff at this as weak hedging, I steadfastly maintain that there is a general value in allowing others to build on an interpretation. Moreover, the more we are inclined to think and speak of the world in definite terms that do not permit multiple interpretations, the more difficult it is for our minds to face situations of disagreement and multiple perspectives. I think our language has developed an active and passive voice as a reflection of the understanding that some parts of our reality are objective and concrete while others are subjective and abstract. (Also, there are times that we want to focus on the actor and there are times that we want to call attention to the action.)

Though there are many inappropriate uses for the passive voice, it is dangerously narrow-minded to instruct students to simply avoid the passive voice without properly explaining why. I use the passive voice often when writing because it serves my goals for the type of writing I tend to do. Without an understanding of what the passive is and why it might be useful, I could not make a deliberate choice either to use or not use the passive voice. To truly allow someone to choose not to write passive, they must be taught when and why they should write passively.

Misunderstanding Irony and Satire Leads to New Culture

People argue a lot over the meaning of the word “irony.” It is one of the key words or terms to describe a great portion of my generation, and yet we seem very lost as to its meaning. Some would say that the combination of the overwhelming importance of understanding the meaning and the widespread disagreement as to its meaning might constitute a sort of irony. I won’t attempt a perfect definition here, but I will point out that irony, as a device, often requires a (sharp) contrast between metamessage and message (or prima facie message or face message).

Irony requires bouncing or reflecting something off of a current idea, more, or status quo. If the audience does not recognize the original idea that is the subject of the irony or satire, the audience may think the ironic image is the actual image, either embracing or hating it while missing the point being made about the intended subject of irony. Interpretation, readership, authorship, and communication theories bear on this.

But who would miss commonly known social mores and ideas or fail to notice references that are core currency of cultural thought, much less fail to completely grasp the subject before them that is the present component of the irony? Children and adolescents are prime candidates for being just such misinterpreters, and are also all the more likely to mimic and adopt what they perceive as the outlook, view, approach, conception, interpretation, etc. that is being “promoted.” I recall when The Colbert Report was new to television: many conservative teens blogged about their new hero. They failed to grasp the satire and irony at work (at least initially).  This is one way a culture can evolve: older generations reference notions that are well known to them but not the younger generation, using advanced or complex mechanisms unfamiliar to the younger generation, and a misunderstanding or misinterpretation is adopted.

This can also hold back social progress. Suppose I make satirical or ironic comments about racism or patriarchy. I may be seeking to undermine the authority of these ideas or institutions, but an audience without the same background as myself might misunderstand my statements by taking them at a literal face-value and interpret them as promotions of what I seek to undermine. In this case, those who share my actual sentiments might denounce me as their opposition as my arguments against a thing are seen as arguments in favor of it.

Artists (poets, writers, painters, film makers, critics, etc.) often use tools beyond the on-the-face-message to emphasize their points.  Audiences often neglect to examine the less obvious parts of a text presented to them -the overall structure, the timing, what is absent- and consider how those impact the surface of the text’s message. We don’t miss some non-essential, fun, bonus feature when we don’t critically examine a text- sometimes, we read the text backwards and upside down and take exactly the opposite meaning away. Perhaps that doesn’t always have to be bad, but it’s worth being aware of it when it happens.

A Compressed Language for the Digital Age?

Analytic philosophy features some lengthy tomes (Hume, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Rawls, etc). The idea is to be thorough, laying out the explanation and motivation for the argument, the counter arguments and replies to them. It isn’t just jumping in and asserting some ideas. It’s a matter of carefully constructing a case, building it from the foundation up. Another reason for the length is to show context for the argument: where does it come from (historically), how does it connect to other arguments, why is it important, what does it do, what are its limits and weaknesses, etc? Between 400-500 words seems about the limit for many people for these blog posts— More than that starts to get too in-depth and too convoluted for people to stay interested. The benefit to me, as an author, is that I am compelled to think about the issue and boil it down to its bare, core bullet points. The downside of this for any reader is the lack of context. On some readings of Baudrillard, this might be a good thing, in that there is no “seduction” or “leading away” of anyone from the thing which we are trying to understand. However, if there is anything to the ideas of the structuralists, maybe placing the issue in a web of context and showing its connections to and disconnections from the rest of the world is actually how we come to understand it. But is the web too complex for this to work? Can we trust readers to place in the web themselves, to link and tag and categorize correctly and appropriately? Maybe they’ll be better at it than authors. Maybe they won’t do it at all.

It makes me wonder if the amount of material available and the increased access to it in the 21st century begins to impose a need on changes in language that accommodate a faster transfer of information. As files began to get big, we started “compressing” (or “Zipping”) them during transfer. To compress is to increase the density of a mass by decreasing the volume it takes up, even as the mass stays constant. We compress gasses with various tanks and pumps, and computer files with languages and applications —can we compress ideas with language and thought? Would the compression of ideas require a new grammar, or only a few new words and symbols? We would still need to trust the reader to “unzip” or “decompress” the information once they received it: to tag, categorize, connect, sort, collate, etc. in their own mind. Are we equipped to do this, as readers?