The Fallacy of Direct Communication(Part I)

I think it's great if someone wants to tell me how direct they are or that they focus on being direct. Really I do. At the very least it shows that they genuinely want to focus on clarity of communication and are well intended. Unfortunately it also belies an assumption that a quality of directness can be quantified and measured, that directness itself is a quality that someone either has or does not have.

With this article I'm not interested in proving or disproving whether or not certain people are direct or not. Nor am I interested in any discussion revolving around superiority of one group over another because of their ability to be direct. I am specifically interested in the base assumption that a person can communicate directly. The purpose of this article is to question the very assumption that anyone can be direct.

I will first provide a working definition of what it means to communicate directly. Then I will analyze that definition with an eye towards communicating meaning and introduce the conduit metaphor for communications. In Part II I will point out some problems associated with the conduit metaphor and what they mean for direct communication. Finally I will discuss the importance of shared context in communication and list common modifiers to shared context. I will focus mostly on spoken communication but most of what I point out can also be taken into the context of written communication or communication via electronic media.

A Definition of Direct

What does it mean to be direct? Is it possible for one group of people to be more direct than another group? Is it possible for one person to be more direct than another? To explore these and other questions we need to look at how meaning is communicated. And we need to look at some of the influences that play a role in the communication of meaning.

Merriam-Websters offers the following 3 definitions for the adjective 'direct'.
(a) from point to point without deviation
(b) from the source without interruption or diversion
(c) without an intervening agency or step

For our purposes definitions (b) and (c) seem like they hold the best promise. In that we can apply those definitions to communication more easily than we can definition (a). But we still need to further refine direct in terms of communication. I offer below a more specific definition of direct with respect to communication.

Direct Communication:
The transference of meaning from speaker to listener without interference or extra steps

A person who is direct is able to transfer meaning from speaker to listener without interference and extra steps. In contrast a person who is indirect transfers meaning with lots of interference or extra steps. We might colloquially think of interference as bullshit. And we can all relate to a situation where language has been used to interfere with the transfer of meaning as opposed to helping it. Typically in these situations it is not in the speaker's best interest to deliver a clear meaning to the listener. Instead the speaker's interests are served by keeping meaning obscured. What I will hopefully show is that the intention of the speaker is not a deciding factor of directness. Even a well intended speaker with a focus on clarity above all else can not help but communicate indirectly. There is more to being direct than just taking away the bullshit.

The Conduit Metaphor for Communication

Our definition of direct uses a very common conceptual metaphor for communication, the conduit metaphor. Some more obvious examples of the conduit metaphor in English are:

  • “I needed to get the idea into his head.”
  • “I was struck by his idea.”
  • “The speech carried meaning to everyone.”
  • “He used a white board to convey meaning to the attendees.”

All four of the above sentences refer to ideas and meaning as objects that need to be moved from speaker to listener. They conceptualize both idea and meaning as objects with a start point and an end point with a conduit in the middle. It may be difficult to immediately understand how this applies to our definition of direct communication. So let us investigate the deeper meanings exposed by our definition for direct communication and the deeper implications of the conduit metaphor.

All three of the definitions given by Merriam-Websters mention in some way a start point, an end point and an intervening route. Our new definition of direct with respect to communication also infers a start point, an end point and an intervening route by using the word 'transference'. You cannot have transference if there is nothing to transfer. And since transferring something requires a medium or conduit of some sort we can safely say that definitions of direct with respect to communication imply the use of a conduit. We can also say that referring to communication as direct implies the use of a conduit since the adjective direct is modifying the conceptual conduit of the conduit metaphor. The conduit is what is direct about the communication. There can be no direct communication without a conduit because then the adjective direct would have nothing to modify.

The conduit metaphor for communication states that meaning is packaged in the mind of the speaker before it travels along a conduit where it is then unpackaged by the listener and understood. The following is an example of how this works for spoken communication:

  1. An idea is conceptualized in the mind of the speaker.
  2. This idea is packaged in the language and medium of the speaker.
  3. This language is literally spoken to the listener.
  4. The listener unpacks the idea.
  5. The listener realizes the meaning of the idea.

3 is where the idea travels along the metaphorical conduit between speaker and listener. It is the reason this metaphor for communication is called the conduit metaphor.

It's easy to see why the conduit metaphor is so popular for describing communications. We can relate to it easily since other things in our lives involve packing, moving and unpacking. Every time we need something physical in a new place we pack it, move it and then unpack it. Since we have a tendency to metaphorically materialize everything that we conceptualize1, we naturally materialize ideas and think of them as needing to be moved from start location to end location in the same way.

In Part II of The Fallacy of Direct Communication I will discuss problems with the conduit metaphor for communication and issues seen with its application.

  1. An explanation for why we tend to materialize everything that we conceptualize is out of the scope of this article. It's based on a premise of physical grounding for conceptualization. For a good argument on this see Metaphors We Live By by Lakoff and Johnson chapter 12.