How to Use Words and Actually Communicate

lights in a jar on the beach at sunset
lights in a jar on the beach at sunset
Photo by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

Some of us work at expanding our vocabulary and using the right words for the right purposes. Whether writing or speaking, reading or listening, we pay attention to words and their specific meanings. Others of us swoop words together in a glossy concoction that paints a feeling or an idea we want to convey. The specific words aren’t as important as the overall impression.

Both have advantages, but the truth is that Concocters and Word-splitters have very different ways of viewing and talking about the world, and their use of words can lead to confusion, misunderstandings, fights, and resentment.

I’m impressed and sometimes swept away by Concocters, (the picture painters who aren’t too finicky about their choice of words), and I can even pretend to be one for short stints. But secretly inside, the Word-splitter part of me is trying to figure out exactly which words most accurately capture the meaning I want to communicate. (Case in point: I really wanted to use the word “convey” again but the writer in me resisted repeating it.)

Language: how accurate is it?

If you write code, you know precision is crucial. So is punctuation. And you can’t leave out anything. Mistakes fail — exact coding succeeds.

If you speak other languages, you recognize that working to find the right words and syntax is necessary for survival, and misunderstandings can be insane. Overly confident English speakers, for example, when flexing their wimpy Spanish muscles, regular proclaim they got someone pregnant when they actually meant to say they were embarrassed. And foreigners in Israel find themselves asking the bus driver to let them give birth at the next stop instead of getting off.

The real problem for me is discovering that whole swathes of people in my social realm have words and images and meanings that I may or may not pick up on. And that’s completely apart from sarcasm.

For many years, I assumed people understood me when I used words correctly. Then I assumed they would take me at my word because I meant well. Then I decided that sometimes other people weren’t listening.

I’ve now concluded that I’m surrounded by aliens.

And as a sci-fi writer, I feel right at home.

Alien Social Skills

Here are my communication tips for using alien social skills at home or, how to use words to communicate with humanoids in your social circles.

  • Smile. Actually, I recommend more than just showing your teeth which some people find threatening. Add a little warmth to your eyes. TIP: Think to yourself, “I’m sure I would like this person if I knew them better,” and quench the part of you that rebels at the thought.
  • Speak with the words you usually use and watch to see if the reaction is appropriate. Believe it or not, this is vital. The longer you go on talking without noticing a disconnect, the worse the situation can get.
  • If the reaction is unexpected or disproportionate, follow up with a question. Something as simple as, “What do you think?” may be enough. Or, your blunder might need a lot more social skills to fix than you have on hand.
  • Admit your problem. “I’m sorry. I don’t speak _________ (English, human, social interaction…) very well.” Or even more simply, “I don’t understand.”

I can’t believe how often I have to resort to saying, I don’t understand, when the fact is, I have an excellent command of the language.

What I’m lacking is knowledge of the person — the alien — in front of me. Their culture, their triggers, their interests… the construct that makes them unique. If I’m not watching to look for common ground, I’m bound to offend someone.

Language ought to be our common ground with words that mean what we all agree they mean. But we live in complicated times.

And we all have our blind spots.

The bottom line is, if I want to communicate with others, it’s up to me to work at it.

After all, to them… maybe I’m the alien.

Written by

Writing about life, health, things I think about. Sci-fi author. Independent publisher.

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