A Communication Rule of Thumb

A Communication Rule of Thumb



Theorem (Communication Rule).  Suppose a person communicates an idea to another person.  Then the second person understands it as some other idea, which is always different from the original idea the first person attempted to communicate.

Proof.  Following.

B: This rule, that one should always remember about communication, says that when Person 1 communicates Idea A, Person 2 understands it as Idea B, which is always different from Idea A.  No matter how intelligent the two parties are, no matter how well they know or agree with each other, there will always be some difference between the idea the one person attempted to communicate and the idea the other person understood it to be, however small, insignificant, and indistinguishable that difference may be.  This is a result of the simple fact that the two people have two different brains, and don’t understand all (or any!) words and ideas in precisely the same way.  Q.E.D.

Fortunately, most communication yields very small differences between the delivered and received ideas.  Amazingly, however, Idea B may turn out to be very well near the opposite of Idea A, and when this happens, conflicts often ensue.  It’s a bit disquieting how often this kind of miscommunication happens; it tends to be the brunt of jokes made about the differences between men and women, for example.

One can imagine, then, the complications that arise when more than two people are involved.  Consider the following: Person 1 communicates Idea A, which Person 2 understands as Idea B.  Person 2 then communicates Idea B as best he can to Person 3, which he in turn understands as Idea C.  It is true that Idea C may actually be more like Idea A than Idea B is.  However, it seems more common that the opposite is usually true.  And by the way, even if Person 2 communicated the message given him from Person 1 verbatim, or if Person 3 actually received the message from Person 1 simultaneously, Ideas B and C yet need not be the same: again, differing brains.  Potential difficulties continually arise as more and more people are involved along the communication chain.


A: What if I try to communicate the message “the” to someone else?  I mean, everybody knows what that word means; how could it possibly be interpreted differently?

B: I imagine that if you were to ask people what image is conjured up in their heads when they hear that word, you’d get a different answer for just about everybody, even if it’s only barely so.  Most communication, as I indicated before, is understood “well enough.”  I just wanted to mention that there is always some difference, however small it may be, and it could lead to larger disagreements down the road.

This concept is probably not terribly new or groundbreaking to anybody, especially since probably just about everybody has played “telephone” before as kids.  However, it’s necessary to mention because of how often it is forgotten.  One must remember this, for instance, when reading newspapers or historical documents, or watching television or movies, reading articles on the Internet, etc.  If, then, it is the role of the press/media to tell the news “the way they really are,” as I have declared before, they must assume responsibility for this quirk native to communication, and relay an interpretation as true to the original idea as possible, without throwing their own spin upon it (and thus further distancing Ideas B, C, etc., from Idea A).  It seems a good practice to employ word-for-word quotes without taking them out of context, for instance.  But even then, of course, there’s a huge potential for misinterpretation.  One should therefore always take into account the possibility that the press may miscommunicate news.

A: What happens when you get to Person 27?

B (perplexed): Person 27?!  Who cares about Person 27?!

A: But Person 26 will communicate Idea Z to him, and Person 27 will not be able to have an idea of how to interpret it.  All the letters will have been used!

B (stares at A with mouth agape, drops his eyelids and heaves a deep sigh): Buddy…(shakes his head, yells in exasperation to nobody in particular, with hand writhing) GOOB!


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