Concerns on Communication

I’m worried about us. Us as people, as a society, as a species. We’ve never been more connected, and yet we seem to grow increasingly short-sighted in how we communicate. I mean this in both the short and the long term.

As an aside, I’m not here to rail against spelling and grammar faults on the internet. Though I may twitch when I see them, they are not the current concern. They are the red herring to distract pedants.

Briefly put: In the short term we’re not taking care to construct messages that will reliably convey our meaning to a disparate audience. In the long term, we’re adopting a standard of public discourse that values the ego over the collective conscious.

Let’s start with the short term…

Careless Communication Causes Concern

Words are imperfect symbols representing ideas (see the Legend and Definition of Terms below). Do we think in the language we speak, or are we simply interpreting our thoughts with our words?

I think it’s the latter. Think back to the last time you were searching for a word to finish your sentence. You weren’t at a loss for thought. You knew what idea you were trying to convey. Maybe you were seeking the word that perfectly expresses that idea. Maybe that word doesn’t exist in the language you speak.

Careless communication risks incorrectly expressing ideas, even by your own interpretation. And that’s where we fuck up; interpretation.

After you’ve translated your thought into symbols and expressed those symbols acoustically or graphically, it’s out of your control. You’ve encoded your bitstream, and you hope that at the other end they’re using the right codec.

Does every word have the same definition for each person using it? Probably. That is to say, we could look up a word in the dictionary and generally agree that the meaning provided is correct.

But does it have the same meaning? Absolutely not. The meaning we apply to words is heavily influenced by our personal experience, I’d say more so than the definition found in Webster’s.

How much effort do you put into thinking about how your words may be read?

Did you read that before you sent it?

“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
– Blaise Pascal

I probably did. I don’t know you, but I know that you’re rarely in such a rush that you don’t have the time to read what you’ve written, but still enough time to have written it in the first place. And I mean read it. Don’t scan the words, speak them in your mind as if hearing them.

Are you hearing the idea you intended to extend?

Caustic Communication Creates Calamity

What about the long term? For the moment let’s ignore the problems of careless communication in the short term, and assume that everything said is always perfectly interpreted by every reader. In the current state of discourse, I’d almost find that more alarming.

So our words are meant to express ideas. But what are our ideas to us? I wish I had a better phrasing to use, because even the term “our ideas” invokes the problematic notion I find so alarming.

The majority of ideas you have are not “your ideas”. They are ideas you read or heard from others, agreed with, and adopted. That’s how we learn1. My concern with the phrasing is that it’s a supporting factor of the problem of identity construction.

You are not your ideas. The things you believe are not you as a person. They are a big factor to be sure, but you and your thoughts are separate things.

I think this is an important idea to meditate on, because I believe that associating ideas with identity is at the crux of the long term problem with our communication.

I could (and probably will) write another piece diving more deeply into the problem we as a society have with ego and self-aggrandizing on both a conscious and subconscious level. For now I’ll simply say that we have an unhealthy attachment to ideas, making them a part of our identity. I find this dangerous, because ideas should be subject to re-evaluation and adjustment or abandonment when presented with new facts. But when an idea is part of your identity, to abandon an idea is to destroy a part of your self.

So when we communicate, we’re not trying to find the best ideas that conceptualize truth for our minds. We’re largely revalidating the ideas we pad our identity with, while attacking those not in alignment.

A pause to clarify

One may misinterpret what’s written above to mean that I’m opposed to argument. Far from it, I thoroughly enjoy a good debate. And I’m not saying that when you think someone is wrong, you shouldn’t say so.

What I’m saying is that we must include a pause for self-reflection in our communication. Think about what you really want to say. More importantly, think about why you want to say it. Are you raising the level of discourse? Are you engaged in debate? Or are you defending an ego propped up by ideas that are being challenged?

Legend:

In this essay, I use italics where I’m vocalizing the emphasis of a sentence in my mind. I use commas more liberally than may be dictated in your favourite manual of style because I want the reader to pause where I would pause while saying a sentence aloud.

Definitions of terms:

Fact: In the context of this essay, a fact is only objective truth, which itself is a term I don’t have the time or education to define further, needed though it may be of late.
Idea: Loosely related to a belief in this context, I’m using ideas as a term to define a coherent thought, opinion, stance, or proposed action.
Thought: Closely related to idea, but more ephemeral. An idea can be a single thought or collection of them. Thoughts may be supporting structures providing a base or reasoning to validate or refute an idea.


  1. I am not exempt from this. Little to none of the ideas discussed here are my own. This is merely an amalgamation of ideas I’ve read or heard and determined valid, restructured in the form I feel best suited to convey the unified point I wish to make. 

Why Am I a Technical Writer?

Because of how many great open-source projects have empty readme files.

Because I like open-source software, but I’m not a developer. Even when projects are documented, it’s written for other developers. The assumed level of knowledge is that of the person who wrote it. I think like a user, not a dev.

Because when beginners enter issues on GitHub, they’re met with scorn instead of compassion. And when answers are given, the goal seems to be to give as little information as possible, and make the user chase down the real answer from clues and hints.

Because I hate being told “RTFM“. If I’m asking, I’ve already read the man page. The problem is, a man page generally only lists the options, and briefly explains what they are. Not how to use them, or why you would want to.

I’m a technical writer because I want to use great software without having to know how it was built in order to use it. Because the high learning curve associated with Linux comes in part because its users hoard their knowledge, and belittle those asking for a helping hand.

I’m a technical writer because I want everyone to be able to use the software they want.

Are you a technical writer? If so, why do you do it?

Oxford Commas, 4Eva!

Yes, I am one of those people with a firm opinion on the Oxford comma. Most writers know the go-to example case for it, and if you haven’t, here’s a great visual representation.

In my particular field of technical writing you don’t see a need for it too often. If you’re writing out enough variables it’s often better suited to use a numbered or bulleted list.

But every so often I’m editing a piece and come across a sentence that can only be made better by adding that extra last comma. It makes my… let’s be realistic and say hour.