The reality is that language is not that great a communication system. In fact,we seem to need language in order to learn language. We need to understand each other before we can start using language to refine that shared understanding. Which seems paradoxical, because it would seem that language is what makes it possible for us to understand each other in the first place. Chicken and the egg. What came first in human evolution: shared understanding or language?
The problem is that things can go wrong. When we mishear or misunderstand something our conversational partners say, and we don’t realise that, then that misapprehension will shape the rest of the conversation. Fortunately, humans are very good at noticing when things go wrong. When a speaker asks a question, the answer is often enough to make them realise whether or not they were understood. This can be obvious, such as when the answer does not address the question, but it can also be more subtle. Sometimes, the same sentence can mean two things, one meaning is an answer to the question, the other is not.
When misunderstandings pass us by the consequences can be dire. In an article from 1992, Emanuel Schegloff, an American sociologist, discusses a conversation in which a radio host and a caller have a misunderstanding. One thinks they’re talking about the Korean war, the other thinks they’re talking about Vietnam. This misunderstanding continues to pass them by, and they get into a heated argument about whether or not the war was supported by the UN. It’s not until the caller hangs up, looks up the information, and calls back in, that they come to realize the misunderstanding. The problem is not their language: the host heard the same words as the caller and vice versa. It is in the assumptions they use to make sense of that language. Language only works when both speakers share the same assumptions, when there is common ground. When that common ground breaks down, language fails too.
Failure to listen
When I finally realised my failure, it was too late. I tried to show we agreed, that I have to make my research accessible, but my co-participant made sense of my explanation based on what he perceived my unwillingness to listen. My words did not mean to him, what they meant to me, and so the discussion ended with him thinking me an arrogant academic. Of course, had I been taking the position he thought I was taking – that science should not be accessible to non-scientists – that would be totally justified. The assumptions he built about me shaped his understanding of my language. What happened between us is precisely what Schegloff describes: when a misunderstanding leads to an argument, we do always not get a change to rectify it and we will go our own ways, being angry, when we really should not be.
We likely all have been in this position multiple times in our lives without even realising it. We make sense of the world based on what we think we know. In other words, our assumptions shape how we see and understand the world. If there is a discrepancy between our assumptions and the world, our first instinct is not to update our assumptions. That is not a bad thing: we should not change our minds at a whim. There are times when we have to fix a discrepancy, or just have to accept that others see the world differently. However, had I been less busy trying to argue my own position, and instead been trying to understand my co-participant, we would likely not have had an argument. Here, as is so often the case, an argument started with a failure to listen. And no amount of language was enough to put that right.