Thursday, February 21, 2008

Frames of Reference

"Words, words. They're all we have to go on."
--Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
I recently had a misunderstanding with someone that's gotten me to think about the nature of communication. The odd thing about it was that the point I was trying to make had to do with exactly that--the difference between what a person thinks he has communicated to someone else and what that someone else thinks has been communicated to him. The difference between giving and receiving communication.

We've probably all had the experience of having someone say something that hit us as being insulting or rude or otherwise inappropriate, and when we call them on it, they respond, "No, no, that isn't what I meant at all." The conversation can go in many directions at that point, but isn't the feeling we usually have, when this protest is made to us, something along the lines of, "Well of course you did! What else could you possibly have meant?" We just simply cannot believe that anyone could have said those words and not meant them exactly the way they came across to us.

Of course, there will be those times in which the errant communicator is indeed, shall we say, fibbing about his original intentions. But I am also convinced that there are times when the EC truly did not mean what we so forcefully heard. Why is that? How is it that someone can say something, in all sincerity meaning one thing, and someone else can hear that same thing and just as sincerely feel that it means something completely different?
"It is impossible to say just what I mean!"
--J. Alfred Prufrock
Communication is a tricky thing. A communicator, attempting to convey a thought, a feeling, an idea, starts out with a particular frame of reference, a matrix of understanding that is a conglomeration of his personality and entire life experience, and more specifically, his experience of how words have been used toward and around him. He shapes this thought into words, the symbols by which we attempt communication, within this matrix; he says what he says because it makes sense to him to say it that way; to him, that's what the words he comes up with mean.

But the recipient takes these words into a completely different personality and life experience, into a different experience of how words have been used toward and around him. He receives the sounds, or the sight of print on paper, or on a screen, and has to create meaning out of these raw sensory impressions, and the meaning he creates has as much to do with his own matrix of understanding as it does with the actual words that have been used. To the extent that the two frames of reference are similar, the communication will be understood in the same sense as it was intended. To the extent that they differ, communication will be impeded.

It's most obvious when people speak different languages. Here, there is no common frame of reference at all, at least where language is concerned. But also, there is no real issue of misunderstanding, because there is no illusion of understanding at all. The dangerous situation--which is by far also the most common--is a partially shared frame of reference. We have just enough similar life and language experience to be dangerous. We know each other well enough to think that we know everything--or at least enough to understand what they said! And so we react, based not on the actual words that were said, but by what those words would have meant if we had ever uttered them. Coming out of our own frame of reference, saying such a thing might have been unthinkable, or would have been spoken only with a completely different intent. But we really have no way of ever experiencing anyone else's frame of reference. The closest we get to it, aside from shared experiences (we both know what "As you wish" means because we've both seen The Princess Bride), is--talking: i.e., communication, language. The very thing that seems to be the impediment is the only clue we have into one another's world.

Perhaps what we most suffer from is a lack of empathy. We simply don't have the imagination to conceive of another way of looking at life, at people, at language. Our way seems so obvious, so right! The problem is that everyone else stubbornly refuses to agree with God and me! Or perhaps it is merely inconvenient. It's easier simply to think that the other person is wrong than to think that they view things from a different point of view. It's easier simply to react than to give the other person the benefit of the doubt, to imagine what might have caused them to articulate what they did. I've found myself in the position of being a translator on numerous occasions, not between different languages, but between different frames of reference, trying to get two people to see things from one another's point of view, and it can be exhausting. But really, if we're to love our neighbor as ourselves, isn't that exactly what is being asked of us?
"That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at."
--Addie Bundren
Of course, I can only hope that anyone could possibly understand this.


  1. Very postmodern. Soon you're going to be blogging about metanarratives, oppressive power structures, and quoting Jacques Derrida. :-)

    But seriously, communication is such a tricky thing and the Internet has made it even trickier. It removes most of the cues that help us apply our frames of reference. Without body language, vocal tone, and the context of the moment, we're left to guess which frame of reference to apply to the words we see. "Smilies" don't help much (see above), and they leave some feeling childish...although that's not necessarily a bad thing, IMHO.

  2. Great quotes you've selected.

    But what do they mean?


    Good post.