Nuance in the Age of Instant Gratification
How a social species can’t communicate
As a human being, we’re social creatures. You’re told this all the time. Everything in us appears to be designed to spread and share information with other humans. We also know the crippling damage that can be done by isolation from others of our own species.
‘Solitary confinement’ is used as a severe form of punishment in the prison systems, so even the penal system understands the nature of human beings as social creatures.
As beings that are so wired to be around others of our species, it makes you wonder why it’s so incredibly common that communication gets screwed up.
We’re constantly miscommunicating messages between each other. Misunderstandings are commonplace in everyday life and mark great events in history.
One of the first stories presented in the Bible is about the ‘Tower of Babel’. This great tower is created by mankind in an effort to reach the heavens and be equal to God. God sends this tower crumbing to the ground and spreads man apart by making their languages different. Hence comes the term ‘babbling’ in regards to something incomprehensible.
T.W. Doane’s book “Bible Myths And Their Parallels In Other Religions” finds that this story of the Tower of Babel exists in more than just the Bible. A number of religions around the world have a story about a great tree or tower being felled and human language being confused. It’s most likely a tale passed through oral tradition through all early humanity.
Why would this story be passed far and wide? Because it was so important and relevant to ancient humans and also to modern humans as well.
Different Languages And Cultures
Obviously, miscommunications through different languages and cultures happens all the time. Sometimes it can be funny. Chevy once made a car called the Nova and tried to sell it in Mexico. No Va in Spanish roughly means “doesn’t move” or “doesn’t go”. That’s one hell of a sales pitch right there.
In my particular life, I practice a martial art that comes from Israel. The original belt tests I would see were translated from Hebrew into English and had some Japanese words in them used to describe certain movements. The results of this mish mash could be downright hilarious. One movement where an opponent held his weight on you was referred to as a ‘lien’. A lien is when an organization or person places a financial mark or weight on someone else for a debt. Why the hell would you use a connection like that in martial arts? It confused us for years!
These miscommunications between languages can also lead to disaster and death. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Talking To Strangers” he explains the first meeting between Montezuma and Cortes. They would have to communicate between two translators. A message going from Spanish, to Mayan, to Nahuatl would be relayed each time the two spoke.
At one point Montezuma tells Cortes he resembles a god that was supposed to return and appears to surrender his city to the Spaniard. At least this is how the Spanish interpreted it. However in Montezuma’s language and culture, the powerful are meant to show a false humility. The more powerful you are, the more humility you’re expected to show. Montezuma’s true message appears to have been to accept the surrender of Cortes.
Obviously, Cortes didn’t have good intentions to begin with. But, this kind of babel of misinterpretation surely didn’t help matters.
Mixed messages like this between languages and cultures appear logical. However, even if we speak the same language it seems there is the same problem. A conversation between family members who grew up in the same house and have known each other for 40 years can often be in ‘different languages’.
Nuance And Instant Gratification
Our current time has done wonderful things with technology. You can flip a switch and have light. Click a button and you have information. Click another button and your food is cooked. It’s an awesome time to live. There’s nothing like instant gratification to make you feel like a king or queen. Things have never been easier in many ways.
However, in our quick moving world a problem begins to develop. As we’ve seen, we’re creatures designed to be social. Even though we’re a chatty species, we suck at communicating. Nuance and small cues are critical in our understanding of each other.
It’s often been quoted that 55% of communication is nonverbal. While an article in Psychology Today indicates that percentage is actually nuanced itself depending upon situations. However, most will commonly understand that tone of voice and facial expression adds layers to a message. Deeper meaning and understanding takes time and can’t be gained by instant clicks or sound bites.
Twitter allows you up to 280 characters in a tweet, but according to an article in Techcrunch only 12% of them make it over 140 characters. As can be imagined, information bursts that small don’t give you lots of room for nuance.
Add text messages to this mix too and it’s not surprising that communication can be jumbled in transmission and misunderstandings can occur.
Social media sites like Facebook also have a tendency to create a filter bubble effect where your feed generally only gets filled with information you agree with as well. This can create a bias where you lose nuance from different opinions. People who believe things differently than you become caricatures of themselves and their nuanced beliefs are lost in translation.
24/7 ‘news’ networks such as CNN, MSN, and Fox have talking heads who are forced to give short answers so they can fit between commercials on 30 minute long programs. Political candidates do the same thing. In this atmosphere a sound bite is much more important than a composed and nuanced idea or statement.
It’s no wonder we suck as a species at communicating even with our advanced technology of the day.
Living In The Wreckage Of The Tower Of Babel?
And God looked down about his earthy subjects and saw them build a tower with their technology. For their arrogance, God felled their tower and confused their language with tweets less than 140 characters and news shows with no substance and breadth. The Lord stole the words from their politicians as well so they could only give answers to questions in 30 second sound bites.
— The Tower Of Babel story if written today
It looks like we’re forming our own version of the Tower of Babel in our modern world. But, does it have to be this way? The answer to that question my friend is no.
There’s an absolute thirst for in depth analysis and nuance. You can see it every day in the new forms of media that are becoming popular. According to statistics gathered by musicoomph.com there are 700,000 podcasts and 51% of Americans have listened to at least one. Over 100 million Americans listen to at least one podcast weekly.
This format usually allows longer discussions with much less interruptions. The general dynamic of a podcast oozes with nuance and detail. Where a news network has to mash information into sound bites between commercial breaks, a podcast has much more freedom. Just the popularity of the format indicates people aren’t locked in the wreckage of the tower.
You’ll often hear meme mindlessly repeated that people today have an attention span less than a goldfish. It turns out that’s a lot more nuance in the study where that idea comes from. An article in the BBC indicates that this idea is completely false and can’t be documented. Another piece in Entrepreneur.com also disagrees with this idea and says attention spans are improving in a way.
Engagements loosely called ‘debates’ between Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, and Slavoj Žižek sold out arenas. These events comprised of two people sitting and talking for over 2 hours. The event with Žižek was near 3 hours. The events were also viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube.
That doesn’t sound like the behavior of a goldfish with legs right there.
A Possibly Bright Future
We’re a social species who has issues communicating. That’s a complex problem, but the speed of our current world doesn’t have to make things worse. We don’t have to be mired in a world of tweet-like communication and a lack of nuance and understanding.
The birth and popularity of podcasts shows there’s still an inner craving for depth and breadth in communication. We should all take advantage of technologies that enable this wealth of nuance.
Facebook may put us into filter bubbles, but we can easily pop that enclosure if we choose. We’ve never had an ability in history to search out and learn wisdom like we have today.
We also have an incredible opportunity to search out opinions different from ours. The miraculous technology of today should be used to identify people who see the world differently and listen to their nuanced opinions. We should listen to deep conversations between the thinkers and philosophers of our day — just like the ancient Greeks might have in their academies.
As you develop your ability to listen and see nuance, hopefully it bleeds over into your personal life. Maybe through you, it will transfer to others and make your little world around you that much better.
The tower may be destined to crash over and over again, but we don’t have to be stuck in the rubble.
Thank you for reading my ramblings. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read, please share. Thanks to Ryan Fan and his article “Life Is Full Of Paradoxes And Contradictions, And That Makes It Beautiful” for giving me the idea for this story.