The Fallacy of Direct Communication(Part II)

Part I

In (Part I) I introduced the concept of direct communication and gave a definition for it based on the dictionary definition of the adjective direct. I then showed how this definition of direct communication implies the use of the conduit metaphor. I will now discuss some of the problems with using the conduit metaphor as a model for communication. And then go into how important shared context is for good communication and how the conduit model fails to take this into account.

Problems with the Conduit Metaphor

To begin with the conduit metaphor implies that communication is half-duplex. Or in other words a single actor cannot communicate and be communicated to at the same time. According to the conduit metaphor the role of speaker and listener may change numerous times in the course of a single conversation, but no single actor will ever be both speaker and listener simultaneously.

This is not how communication takes place in real life. There is no such thing as passive listening and non-responsive speaking. When we are listening to someone else speak or speaking ourselves we are constantly giving off signals that need to be interpreted if communication is to successfully occur. Both actors need to interpret these signals and modify their interpretation of language accordingly if meaning is to be understood. A kind of dance takes place between both speaker and listener that helps to establish common ground. In effect both actors create a shared context that allows meaning to be understood by both the speaker and listener. One of the reasons why people find they understand something better after communicating it is due to the creation of shared context. Through the creation of shared context not only can the listener grasp meaning effectively but the speaker can refine their message to further grasp it themselves.

Walter Ong explained it best in his book Orality and Literacy:

“Human communication, verbal and other, differs from the “medium” model most basically in that it demands anticipated feedback in order to take place at all...the sender has to be not only in the sender position but also in the receiver position before he or she can send anything...I have to be somehow inside the mind of the other in advance in order to enter with my message, and he or she must be inside my mind...This is the paradox of human communication. Communication is intersubjective. The media model is not.”

The media model Ong is referring to is the conduit metaphor and its offshoots. To paraphrase Ong there are no such things as strict listeners and strict speakers. Every speaker is simultaneously a listener and every listener a speaker. Ong also makes mention of shared context. That's what I understand Ong to mean when he states that he must “ somehow inside the mind of the other...”. He then goes on to say that the medium model does not take this into account.

Establishing Shared Context

The medium model for communication not only fails to take into account both the dual roles of the actors but the shared context in which the actors communicate. If the actors involved in communicating fail to establish a shared context than meaning is not understood. Let's now look at some of the things that can get in the way of establishing shared context during communication and how those things relate to communicating meaning.

The most obvious example would be language. If two people are speaking different languages than very little meaning will be understood by either person. There will still be some small amounts of communication taking place due to non-verbal expressions and their interpretation. But complex meanings will not be understood. If you have ever tried to communicate with someone who you don't share a language with you will understand exactly what I'm talking about. There is only so much you can communicate with counting fingers and hand gestures.

Even when both actors involved in communicating share the same language direct communication of meaning is problematic. Both actors are limited by the linguistic tools available to them and the medium they choose to communicate in. Human beings cannot mind meld or otherwise communicate mind to mind. We require the use of language to shape our thoughts into meaning and communicate them. We require the use of language to develop a shared communication context and language ultimately limits us.

The medium chosen is another limiting factor for communicating meaning. Even the same words read by the same person in a different medium can affect the communication of meaning. Imagine someone reading a prepared statement behind a podium to a crowded hall. Place that same person with the same statement reading it as a monologue in a live theater production. The added context that comes with placing the person in a play with other actors, sets, costumes and plot elements would alter the meaning of the message considerably. Now place that same person and statement on television or the internet and we begin to see how the chosen medium can change meaning entirely.

Another enemy of shared context that might be less obvious is culture. Our cultural upbringing in combination with our native language helps establish the shared context in which we will communicate for the rest of our lives. It is almost impossible to escape this. Language is in many ways shaped by physical adaptations necessary for a given culture to live and thrive. This in turn leads to ways of understanding that are grounded in physical reality for a specific language. Whether these means of understanding are metaphorical or based in another conceptual system is not really relevant. What matters is that our experience interacting with those around us forms subconscious receptors for specific cultural stimuli. If culture is what we take for granted than culture as a modifier for shared context moves at a level deeper and more significant than any other.

Other more personal modifiers of shared context might involve the relationship between speaker and listener. If the person speaking had considerable power over the listener than any kind of meaning that needed to be communicated would be affected by that power relationship. The personal history between people plays a role in how they communicate and establish shared context.

The basic theme is that communication does not take place in a vacuum. Any and everything can play a part in shaping meaning as it is understood by a listener. I have listed some of the most obvious modifiers and inhibitors for building shared context. There are many more.

Wrapping Up

I hope I have made a good case that direct communication is a fallacy. I first set out to define what exactly it means to communicate directly. Then I showed that the definition of direct communications implies a conduit metaphor and pointed out problems with the conduit metaphor as a way of describing communication. Finally I gave some examples of elements that can get in the way of establishing the shared context necessary for successful communication of meaning.

Before ending I would like to offer one more argument for the fallacy of direct communication that does not directly relate to conceptual metaphor. The myth of an objective reality. The fallacy of direct communication implies an objectivist account of reality. Let us assume that person A is better at communicating directly than person B. This entails that person A is better at communicating reality to a listener than person B. This also assumes that the reality they are both attempting to communicate is the same. We cannot judge that person A is better at communicating reality than person B if the realities are not the same. If the realities are different than we would have no baseline for comparison. The idea that two people view reality the exact same way leads us to an objective definition of truth. Whether or not an objective reality exists is outside the scope of this article. But the reader should note that accepting an objectivist reality is a prerequisite for believing in direct communication.

In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson use the term shared experiential gestalts in much the same way that I talk about shared context. I avoided using their term for two main reasons.

  • Gestalt is much less accessible of a word than context. More people know what context means than gestalt.
  • Experientialism is something I didn't want to get into with this article. Arguing theories of truth is outside the scope of this article and whether or not experientialism vs objectivism vs subjectivism is better at enumerating truth is irrelevant to my greater point. I mentioned a little on objectivism and reality. But did not want to go too far into arguing against an objectivist reality nor did I want to make a case for experientialist reality and its relation to conceptual metaphor. That exercise is left up to the reader.