This Thing Called Communication

Whenever I start patting myself on the back for my ability to write, something happens to make me realize how very difficult is this thing called communication.

Today I texted someone to give my opinion about a course of action he was planning to take that would affect me. I immediately received a call from him chastising me for my anger. I was taken aback because I wasn’t angry. I was being direct, or at least thought I was.

phoneI got upset with the situation, and remarked this was always happening to me — I say something that seems unadorned and direct, and the recipient reads it as anger. My communicant today responded, “If it always happens, maybe the problem is with you.”

Perhaps it is. If so, how would I know? I only know what it is I think I am saying, not what it is people hear when they read my words. But come to think of it, even if I were angry, what difference does it make? I’m allowed my own reaction, especially when it comes to things that affect me.

Today, because of his call, we were able to smooth things over. Both of us apologized for the misunderstanding, but that ease of voice-to-voice communication is not always possible. And when that happens, things drag on, with the situation getting ever more complicated. I try to explain myself in subsequent emails but end up only deepening the misunderstanding, because each explanation seems as if I’m refueling the anger.

When we write fiction, we write to evoke emotions — anger, nostalgia, humor — but people don’t always respond the way we want them to. Sometimes the humor falls flat, the romance seems uninspired, the pathos insipid, but we as writers don’t end up in imbroglios because of the miscommunication. In fact, we seldom even know where it is we lost those particular readers, or if they even care. Maybe they felt something completely different and just as meaningful as what we intended.

But real life isn’t as easy. We leave people with impressions we don’t want to make, and no matter how precise we think we’re being, we end up causing confusion. Case in point: I sent this text to the executor of my father’s estate: “I’ve got a note on the cable box that it has to be returned to the company.” And I do have a note taped to the box. I put it there as a reminder to return the box when the house is sold. I just wanted to make sure it didn’t get forgotten or thrown out in the flurry of post-sale activity. But the executor thought I meant that I received a note from the cable company about the box. Eek.

Considering all the misinterpretations that are possible as words slip from one mind to another, it’s amazing that we can communicate at all.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

8 Responses to “This Thing Called Communication”

  1. leesis Says:

    So true Pat. Communication is a hideous maze of potential explosions :). And texting/emails make it so much harder. They have made wider a form of communication whereby non-verbals and tone are absent and we are left with text only and our own emotions to put to it. Plus people tend to say things in writing that they perhaps wouldn’t try to get away with face to face. Like accusing someone of being angry, (particularly said to women), when they are being direct.

    My professional title these days is Therapeutic Communication Specialist and I help staff working with folks in mental health, aged care, youth services and disability hear and communicate better with their clients. After studying/practicing this area for over thirty years now all I know is that words are often meaningless. It’s all in the emotion the person is experiencing as they take in what you say. That’s what dominates their hearing when they miss hear you. So perhaps this gentleman is angry that you are making him feel guilty and transfers that anger to you…or not :).

    In my work I teach people to hear the emotion, analyse the cause and respond gently to that. And my own life I very tersely said to a friend of mine; “how the bleep bleep did you get that from what I just said?” and face-palmed (dramatic I know but I was seriously frustrated). As I said Communication is a hideous maze of potential explosions. 🙂

    thinking of you in this transition xx

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Oh, Leesis, it’s so good to talk to you. I don’t think anyone has understood me more than you do. These situations today were simple. Much more complicated and heartbreaking is an ongoing dilemma that I don’t know how to deal with. A friend I have worked for (largely unpaid) sees almost everything I write/say as angry, negative, and nonsupportive, and hence he refuses to talk things over with me. I’ve tried to explain what I mean/need in emails, tried to find out what he wants from me and what he will do in return (or hopes to do when the business grows), but he never seems to see/hear what I say beyond his own emotions and preconceptions. I know I should just walk away, but I have had too many losses in my life that are irrevocable. This one isn’t irrevocable since we are both still alive, but it’s beginning to sink in that I can’t continue like this. And so my heart breaks a little more each day.

      • leesis Says:

        I think one of the hardest things to face is this kind of communication breakdown Pat. From what you write this friend could have felt let down by you in a massive way and thus accuses you of anger, negativity and of being unsupportive. Or was it simply that friendship and business don’t always work. If he was a friend before hand maybe its that. Or maybe he is fretting because he’s failing to motivate himself so his biz isn’t doing well and doesn’t want to admit it so he rolls over you verbally. (I’ve just started my own biz and have that feeling everyday).

        So many questions but the ultimate one is is he brave enough to step up and speak up if he’s given the supportive environment to do so.

        Don’t walk away yet Pat. I would suggest gently asking him a direct question via at least phone if you can’t do it face to face. Ask him, gently and with love what do you want of me ……..? Keep asking until he walks away, hangs up the phone. Allow him at least the opportunity of becoming clear. As we are talking about a he we know communication skills are even less developed in men (generalization of course). Have you let him down Pat? I know you wouldn’t if you had committed to something. Did he expect something back from you that you had no intention of giving, or even knew about…what were you ‘meant to do for him? If you can find that out then you will know whether you can meet his needs or not.

        I understand the pain Pat. I am going through it currently and if it weren’t for my godson who is 13 I would walk away but so so sadly. All I can say is allow the person the opportunity to hear that you really care about them and that you’d love to ‘fix’ whatever is going wrong between you so your friendship survives because you honour the friendship. I have done this before and have discovered that you either get…a little honesty thats worth fighting for or the ‘its all you not me’; deal. Either way you’ll know how hard you’ll have to work for the relationship.

  2. rami ungar the writer Says:

    One of the reasons I resisted using texts for so long was that you can’t convey emotion or true meaning with a text. I’m sorry that problem caused you an angry phone call today. Glad it was smoothed over, though.

  3. kencoffman Says:

    In communication theory, if the receiver is distuned from the transmitter, then the signal-to-noise ratio is bad and the situation is quite hopeless. In addition, when the receiver has high-gain (and is therefore easily stimulated) oscillators, it is difficult to avoid activating them. This is not the transmitters fault. In general, I like talking to positive, intelligent people. There are others I avoid as if they have a mental version of ebola. Life is short, there is no time to waste.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I like this analogy. I am sure some people think I am the one with easily stimulated oscillators, but I try to listen to — and hear — anyone who makes a sincere effort to talk to me. I can’t do the listening for others, though, and can’t control what they hear. It sounds like a good plan to avoid those with a bad signal-noise-ratio. Thank you.

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