Do I really need to communicate?
Since the time I have landed in Bangalore, I have been haunted by a strange faceless apparition. It constantly tells me that I am an alien, and can truly never belong here. Whenever I tell him about this being my country, my home-land, my India; or whenever I try to go a step further and talk of the global world, the shrinking boundaries; it scoffs at me with all its canines and molars full in display. When I refuse to buy its stand and ask for proof, it quietly holds my hand and takes me to the homes of one of the few great friends, I have found after coming to Bangalore. So I ride along bracing myself to prove it incorrect and illogical.
On a similar one excursion, I visited a dear friend for lunch on a fine Bangalore afternoon. With a little kid running around squealing incomprehensible monosyllables, I expected the day to be a juxtaposition of a lot of amusement and game. It sadly turned out to be just the opposite. The Tamil Friend's wife did not speak English or Hindi, the only two languages I am remotely intimate with; and the husband had to use Tamil to converse with her almost all the while. The other friend accompanying me knew the language well enough to write a novel, and she gelled in like Irish cream on piping hot mocha.
The entire day I sat there, looking at the faces/lips/hand movements of the people trying to make some head or tail of the conversations. In between they took pity on my once in a while and translated some bits of the talking; and I laughed stupidly pretending to enjoy. It was repeated another time when I paid a visit to another friend; and I was alarmed at how helpless and defenseless I felt when a congregation of people around me emoted in a tongue so alien. Back in Delhi, the thing I almost always never thought about, now seemed as the most crucial thing in the world.
Since i found myself so engrossed at engulfed in this post, I thought of making it more worthwhile by putting in some useful information and interesting trivia. Now, let me first elaborate on human speech and language. Human speech is commonly recognized as the dividing line between ourselves and the rest of the animal world. The reason why the ability to speak is such a sharply defined boundary goes deeper than the mere existence of a method of communication, it is what we have done with language that counts. Language paved the way for all the special human abilities that we so value- self-awareness, higher emotion and personal memories (McCrone 48).
Communication, on the other hand, is far more than speech and writing. Most of us are unaware that we are communicating in many different ways even when we are not speaking. The same goes for other social animal species. We rarely learn about this mostly non-verbal human communication in school even though it is very important for effective interaction with others. Growing up in a society, we learn how to use gestures, glances, slight changes in tone of voice, and other auxiliary communication devices to alter or emphasize what we say and do. We learn these highly culture bound techniques over years largely by observing others and imitating them.
Linguists refer to all of these auxiliary communication devices as paralanguage. It is part of the redundancy in communication that helps prevent ineffective communication. It can prevent the wrong message from inadvertently being passed on, as often is the case in a telephone call and even more so in a letter. The paralanguage messages that can be observed through face to face contact also makes it more difficult to lie or to hide emotions. Paralanguage is often more important in communication than what is actually being said orally. It has been suggested that as much as 70% of what we communicate when talking directly with others is through paralanguage.
The most obvious form of paralanguage is body language or kinesics. This is the language of gestures, expressions, and postures. In North America, for instance, people commonly use their arms and hands to say good-bye, point, count, express excitement, beckon, warn away, threaten, etc. In fact, they learn many subtle variations of each of these gestures and use them situationally.
When we speak to another individual or group, the distance our bodies are physically apart also communicates a message. Proxemics is the study of such interaction distances and other culturally defined uses of space. Most of us are unaware of the importance of space in communication until we are confronted with someone who uses it differently. For instance, we all have a sense of what is a comfortable interaction distance to a person with whom we are speaking. If that person gets closer than the distance at which we are comfortable, we usually automatically back up to reestablish our comfort zone. Similarly, if we feel that we are too far away from the person we are talking to, we are likely to close the distance between us. If two speakers have different comfortable interaction distances, a ballet of shifting positions usually occurs until one of the individuals is backed into a corner and feels threatened by what may be perceived as hostile or sexual overtures. As a result, the verbal message may not be listened to or understood as it was intended.
Now here's some interesting trivia. A US business team was in recent negotiations with a Japanese group in Tokyo. Things seemed to be going well. Then there was a pause, the Japanese apologized, and began speaking to each other in Japanese. The US businessmen suddenly felt isolated and frustrated, whereas moments before they had been an integral part of the action. The advantage was with the Japanese because they had two languages and the Americans but one.
In another significant instance, the Japanese word, mokusatsu, changed all our lives. It has two meanings: (1) to ignore, (2) to refrain from comment. The release of a press statement using the second meaning, in july, 1945 might have ended the war (World War 11) then. The Emperor was ready to end it, and had the power to do so. The cabinet was ready to accede to the Potsdam ultimatum of the Allies-surrender or be crushed-but wanted a little more time to discuss the terms. A press release was prepared announcing the policy of mokusatsu, with the no comment interpretation. But it got on the foreign wires with the ignores interpretation through a mix-up in translation: The cabinet ignores the demand to surrender. To recall the release would have entailed an unthinkable loss of face. Had the intended meaning been publicized, the cabinet might have backed up the Emperor's decision to surrender. In which event, there might have been no atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tens and thousands of Japanese might have been saved. One word, misinterpreted.