Simple (?) Communication!

“The cat sat on the mat” was one of the first sentences that I remember from early school (UK). It was easy to explain the “subject – verb – object” sentence structure to us little ones.

Sometime ago, I was on a Communications course and was presented with the concept that, in face to face conversations, only 10% of the message we projected was from the words we used. Our body language projected 75% of the message, and voice inflections projected 15%. Based on those numbers, it is easy to see how a text message or email could easily be misunderstood. We are only around 10% efficient!

Since that time, those numbers have been challenged however, it is still accepted that the message we convey is heavily based on our body language, clarified by voice inflections and tone, and only a small part is from our choice of words.

I could tell you that the cat sat on the mat and, depending on what I emphasize, can produce different understandings.

“THE cat sat on the mat” – If I had more than one cat, and one was a particular problem/delinquent, then you would know that “THE cat” was referring to that one.

“The CAT sat on the mat” – It wasn’t the dog or the rabbit. It was the cat.

“The catย  SAT on the mat” – It didn’t stand or lay down, it just sat.

“The cat sat ON the mat” – It didn’t sit half on/half off the mat, and neither did it sit on the wood floor.

“The cat sat on THE mat” – It sat on the really expensive/really special mat.

“The cat sat on the MAT” – It did not sit on the rug or the carpet, but did sit on the mat.

If a six word statement can have six different interpretations based on a simple emphasis of one word, should we really be surprised that emails/text messages are often badly misunderstood? In a face to face dialogue, we could add simple voice inflections. That would increase the potential interpretations so much more. Adding a soft or stern tone adds another dimension. If we lilt the last word upwards, it could become a question. Now imagine what our body language in general is adding to the communication! Are we displaying a social, friendly disposition, or do we have our arms crossed in front of us and a rigid upright stance?

Of course we can, with emails and texting, STRESS a word, and also add emoticons… all of which can help… but how much more efficient do they really make the text?

By way of analogies, perhaps the black & white scene you are presenting is really in color?

Perhaps you are using only three primary colors to describe the seven colors of a rainbow?

If nothing else, recognizing that “The cat sat on the mat” projects only a very basic message (and misses a vast array of other pieces of information), should alert all writers to use their written language of choice to its maximum potential.

On the productive side, and if all the prior interpretations were relevant to my story, then “the cat sat on the mat” would have to be considerably expanded and would produce a significant paragraph on its own!

In fact, and given that we now know what the cat did (and in great detail), we just need to add the “Why”ย  and the “Result” and we have a short story…. and all from one 6 word sentence that was taught in early school!

Food for thought.

14 thoughts on “Simple (?) Communication!

  1. How right you are. I’m usually in a hurry when I comment on a post. I’ve used wrong wording, made horrible typos, and not given much thought to how much sense my intended thoughts looked on paper.

    Sometimes I don’t comment at all for fear I am not going to write what I really mean. And you’ve seen evidence of that when I have commented on some of your posts.

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  2. Body language is a fascinating subject, and was the subject of a course Hubby went on for his security training. Indeed, emphasis on one particular word in a spoken sentence gets the message across, and I was told that by putting words in capital letters in an email/letter, I was actually shouting at the reader!

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  3. Good points that you made from a simple statement. Like you said I think it would make a good short story. Who better than you to write the why and the result of the Fat Cat that sat on the Mat? I feel I have gotten to know this cat and want to know more PLEASE, and THANK YOU ๐Ÿ™‚ Oh and about emails being misinterpreted…hmmm…I have found that can be even more true when in a believed to be foreign language. Just saying!

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