“What we have here is a failure to communicate.” – The Captain, “Cool Hand Luke”
My daughter is about to turn 11 years old. Puberty has begun and she is stepping ever closer to middle school, which means our household is about to enter the unique hell that is coming of age for young women. To paraphrase a line from “Heart of Darkness:” “…the drama, the drama.”
We are beginning to get glimpses of she said/she said, inferred meaning, and misinterpretation. Recently another parent informed me that my daughter had hurt his daughter’s feelings. He recounted what he heard my daughter had said as if it was the gospel truth. There was no asking if I was aware of any incident, or any benefit of the doubt, even though he has known my daughter for a several years now. Luckily for both of us he hit me with this at a very good time and I did not take it personally or react. I know this man’s daughter much better than I know him and felt the situation just needed defusing, so I just apologized. I spoke with my daughter, who was very upset. She said she had no recollection of any issues between them and claimed that she never said what she had been accused of saying.
I have no way of knowing what really happened, but knowing both of these girls well, I strongly suspect this is a case of what my daughter said and what her friend heard were two different things. We have a simple miscommunication. That this would happen between two pre-teen girls is in no way surprising, but that it spread to two grown adults is indicative of what is wrong with our culture today: We have forgotten how to communicate. There are three drivers.
First, we no longer believe in giving one the benefit of the doubt and fact-checking. It seemingly never dawned on the other father that perhaps this could have been a miscommunication. We unquestionably believe messages we want to believe without any consideration, then immediately attack anyone who questions.
My wife and I have been watching “Ted Lasso” on Apple TV. It is a great show about an American football coach who goes to England to coach a soccer team. In a recent episode, one of the Nigerian players received a text from his father suggesting that the parent company of the team’s corporate sponsor was guilty of illegally dumping oil and paying off the Nigerian government to look the other way. Without any question or research of his own, he decided to protest by covering the sponsor’s name on his uniform. In the show’s defense, it is a 30-minute sit-com, but still I thought the situation is indicative of our culture today. His teammates ask what he is doing and with only his word, based on one text, they all decide to cover the sponsor’s name on their own jerseys.
Now, perhaps the text was 100 percent accurate and the protest justified; that is not the point I’m making. The point is that those players have no idea whether any of what they are saying is true. The show ends with the player accusing the Nigerian government of corruption, and a reporter verifying that this is what the player meant. The headline in tomorrow’s paper will be “Nigerian Government Corrupt,” and that is based on a quote from a professional soccer player who received a text.
In all likelihood the story will end up being true (we have not yet watched the next episode, so don’t tell us), but wouldn’t it be great if it turned out that was not the case? What a great lesson: Don’t believe everything you hear. Give people the benefit of the doubt, check the facts, and seek the truth.
That is especially true when we focus on the second problem: hyperbole. Jesus taught us in Matthew 5:37, “But let your ‘yes’ be yes, and your ‘no,’ no. Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” My family watched an interview with US Olympic gymnast Simon Biles this summer before she dropped out of the team competition. The reporter asked something to the effect of, “What is it like being the greatest of all time?” No pressure. I will freely admit that everything I know about gymnastics is from watching it once every four years; I have no idea is Simon Biles is really the greatest of all time. I do know there have been a lot of really good gymnasts, and that with any sport it is nearly impossible to compare one generation to another, because sports evolve. I also know that even if is true, it isn’t helpful. Obviously, it was not helpful to Simone.
Unfortunately, “Happy Birthday to my perfectly suitable spouse” is not going to rack up the likes as fast as “Happy Birthday to the most beautiful women to ever walk the planet!” While buttering up one’s wife might be harmless, the habit of exaggerating everything is certainly not. When one makes a mountain out of every molehill, he becomes easy to dismiss.
Why do so many people not believe in climate change? Because its biggest believers exaggerate to the point of being ridiculous. Steven Koonin, a physicist who served in the Obama administration, recently wrote a book on climate change entitled, “Unsettled.” He argues not against current climate science, but that what the media and politicians say about the science has drifted so far out of touch with actual science as to be absurdly, demonstrably false.
Of course he has been attacked for saying so, mostly by people who likely didn’t read what he wrote or who pick out one detail they believe he got wrong and blow that out of proportion to dismiss the entire message. Lost on them is the irony of the fact that their hyperbolic response only proves his point.
When we exaggerate, we become far easier to dismiss and we lose our ability to respond correctly to real emergencies. We have an actual crisis going on in Afghanistan, but when everything is a “crisis,” how do we get anyone’s attention?
Finally, for people to communicate with one another they must agree on the meaning of words. Last week a Wall Street Journal article described how the younger generations have changed the meanings of emojis. The smiley face is actually an insult. You can’t make this up.
I won’t even get started on the use of emojis to communicate in the first place, but when the receiver can just decide that the emoji means what she thinks it means at the time, and evidently this is subject to change, how can any communication take place? While it is true that language evolves, this is a process that occurs over time. We cannot just decide that a word now has a different meaning, and if more than one meaning is possible then we should seek first to understand. Ask for clarification before assuming the worst and going on the attack.
Which brings all the faults together: If one decides that a smiley face is an insult as opposed to an expression of joy, he can’t then just assume the sender has made the same illogical leap, and even so this certainly is too minor of a thing to get worked up about.
To communicate properly we must give each other the benefit of the doubt and look for the facts. We need to speak plainly and avoid exaggerations, and we need to use our vocabulary in a way our audience understands. If we all work on these things individually, who knows, we might make the world a little less polarized. At least that is my perspective.
Chuck Osborne, CFA