Can We Have Too Much Communication?

I suggested this a few days ago. . .

. . .  and so I feel obligated (and enthusiastically so) to return to that assertion to expand and clarify. So, can we have too much communication? You know, we probably can’t. Human communication probably cannot ever be excessive, but that assumes that communication is actually taking place. And I think the “exchange” and the “streaming” far exceed the sum total of actual communication. Permit me to explain.

My theory of human communication arose from my speech courses in college, where I majored in both English and speech. The former gave me all my writing and literature skills and know-how, but the latter provided a sound theory of how human communication actually works. I will be forever grateful to those speech professors. I think we went over that theory in every course, all of the faculty seeming to agree that, unless communication is actually going to take place, there is no point in giving the speech or the reading or the play. They held us to that standard.

That was a long time ago; I think it’s worth revisiting in this age of 24-hour “news” and commentary surrounded by a barrage of tweets and posts, Everyman having now been promoted to the role of speaker/writer/commentator.

The theory is really pretty simple. For communication to take place, there must be a sender, a message and a receiver of the message. There we go, right off the bat: How many messages are sent around this globe in an average hour that are not actually “received” in any way that even resembles what the sender intended? How many are simply ignored? If a candidate for president says this at a rally, I think the intent is pretty clear: “Did you see that little guy? That real little guy speaking in Philadelphia? I’m gonna hit him so hard. I’m gonna hit him really hard.”

We might argue the nuances of that assertion, but I think we can all agree that the speaker meant to sound strong and tough and send a message that he would respond vigorously and resolutely to anyone he felt might be undermining his position in the race. And I’ll bet the majority of the people sitting in that audience and hearing the assertion “live” understood it as it was intended. But what of the TV and online audiences – much larger – that had first witnessed the actual speech of the dwarf before hearing this response to it? And what of those receivers who were introduced to the candidate’s claim by a political commentator of one ilk or another? Did they receive the original statement even somewhat as it was intended?

My point is that more sending through more channels does not equal more communication. And the opportunity to ameliorate the situation is also diminished. Here’s what I mean by ameliorating the situation, returning to our theory of human communication: Once the sender sends the message and it is received in some way, shape or form, feedback usually follows. If I tell you a joke that suggests bigotry or narrow mindedness on my part, the look on your face instantly tells me I’ve just made a mistake, and I fall all over myself to mitigate the damage, sending a revised message. You then respond to that revision, and the cycle continues.

Complicating the situation a bit are the filters in place in front of both sender and receiver. You hear my stupid joke through a filter. Some examples: You’re my brother, so you want to laugh at my joke and feel good about my sharing it; you’re my co-worker, and you’ve had it up to here with my ill-advised “jokes”; you’re my new neighbor, and you want to make me like you; you’re my long-time neighbor, and you’ve seen this trend in my conversation, so you’ve got your defenses up and your judgment half formed when I open my mouth.

I don’t think I need to elaborate on that. Both the sender and the receiver have filters that twist and shape the messages as they are sent and re-sent. And that’s how it’s always been – until now. I suspect that today, with messages being sent out by the thousands every second, around the clock, and with media operating at full throttle around the clock, a tremendous cloud of fog and noise has been added to the process. I am thinking that the actual “communication” occurring is only a fraction of the amount of messaging taking place. If you post to your Facebook page and 12 of your 78 “friends” read it, and no one responds, how much communication actually takes place? If a political candidate sends a tweet (that is reported to a huge percentage of the population via the airwaves, whether or not they follow Twitter), and that tweet says, “Do not tweet,” how many people will really grasp its original intent? How many will scratch their heads and change the channel or turn off the tablet? How many will miss it altogether?

So, do we communicate too much? I don’t think so. Do we send too many messages? I believe we do. And I believe the noise and the fog are probably responsible in large part for the decline of accuracy and specificity in our language – those things I keep complaining about like misusing “myriad” and “preventative” and mispronouncing “a.” I submit that the desire to be heard above the noise, along with the need to fill the airwaves 24/7, is costing us the precision and nuance of our language. But that will be a topic for another day.