We human beings have a lot of ways to connect with each other and communicate. A wry smile, a slumped posture, a playful tickle, and avoiding eye contact all communicate different things to those around us. Obviously, seeing someone bouncily putting the dishes away as they whistle a sprightly tune sends a whole different message than someone who is scowling while moving in sharp jerky motions and slamming drawers.
But in spite of these many avenues, language remains the base method to interact with each other, to share ideas, to wrangle through our differences and find common ground. These words I’m typing are full proof of that.
However, language may be the best tool we have, but it still has issues. There are many ways for us to miscommunicate. Of all the ways in which we fail to accurately communicate, the most common mistake in my experience is the scourge of Ambiguity – an embracement of imprecision or fuzzy thinking, sometimes accidental, sometimes lazy, sometimes quite on purpose.
You see, we all know that many of the words we use have different meanings. “Dust”, for example, can mean to remove dust, as in “the maid dusted the bannister”, but it can also mean to add dust or powder, as in “the chef dusted the cookies with sugar”. Although it would be hard for us to confuse those two, there are many other words with multiple meanings that are a lot less easily distinguished, but are nonetheless not at all the same.
Take the word “wet”. Even when only considering the descriptive uses of that word, there are many close but different ways to use “wet” to describe something. Here are just a few examples of the thirteen I found looking up “wet” as an adjective:
- moistened, covered, or soaked with water or some other liquid: His hands were wet.
- in a liquid form or state: The paint was still wet.
- allowing or favoring the sale of alcoholic beverages: Since Jackson was a wet town, he went there to buy beer.
…and so on.
Usually we instinctively try to figure out which “wet” people mean from the context, but if I told you the bench was “wet”, would I mean that it was recently painted or that it had simply rained recently?
When it comes to deep and nuanced conversations – such as all those we have when talking about things like values, spirituality, meaning, and truth – we run into this problem all the time! Many (perhaps even most) of these complex words have multiple meanings, each shaded slightly but significantly differently.
As a very brief example, let’s just scratch the surface of the multiple ways to use the word “faith”. There are many very different meanings for that word in any dictionary.
Let’s say there’s a fellow who wants to chuck the Covenant and get as many people as he can agreeing with him that it’s a good thing to believe whatever you like, regardless of whether it’s rational. This zealous fellow asks, “Isn’t faith a good thing? After all, don’t we have faith in each other, and in our community? Don’t we have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow? Faith is the natural response of humankind – so my faith that Zeus will carry me to Olympus when I die is perfectly fine, right?”
This is the scourge of Ambiguity in full attack. Because one of the meanings of “faith” is trust, and because we of course want to trust our fellow humans, we tend to react positively to the use of that word.
However, one other use of the word is “belief that is not based on proof”. So if we aren’t paying attention, we just got conned into agreeing that faith-belief is good practice simply because we think that faith-trust is!
This isn’t always done on purpose. The fellow above trying to defend his faith that Zeus is real? He may not even be aware that he is pushing Ambiguity at all – he may just think it makes sense to him. Thus even those who use and push Ambiguity don’t necessarily know that that is what they are doing!
It happens all the time, with all manner of high-impact words that many people use in significantly different ways – “good”, “justice”, “honorable”, “common”, “freedom” just to name a tiny few.
Perhaps this post wasn’t directly on the topic of spirituality, but it was smack dab center on the topic of avoiding miscommunication. Nothing turns a conversation into a tragedy faster than Ambiguity, especially when it passes undetected – that just means it blows up later, or worse yet, instead of exploding, it quietly poisons one’s thoughts with imprecision and flawed thinking.
The connections and interactions amongst us and our conversations are key to the core of spirituality I believe. Guarding against this most common and most dangerous of scourges is paramount if we value clarity – or each other. So let’s embrace precision in what we say, and demand precision in what others say as well. It’s up to us to pay enough attention to our conversations to be able to root out the hidden Ambiguities before they are abused, accidentally or not.
And always, always, always make sure that no such pitfalls are hidden in your conversations – because even if all participants are sincere, sometimes the language isn’t!