Saying What's Meant and Meaning What's Said

We, as a society, seem pretty lost on the subject of communicating these days.
Oh, sure, we’ve got the surfacing of it all down pat. We text each other. Email abounds. Blogging has given a voice to everyone we wish never had one. Twitter makes it possible to nanobroadcast your life. Coworkers instant message each other from their desks. Feet? Who needs ’em? We’re more in touch with each other without even moving than we’ve ever been.
Yet it’s like the end of communication’s been happening before our very eyes. Does anyone ever really SAY anything anymore? Does any of it ever really MEAN anything?
Yesterday, President Obama blew all the pundits out of the water by granting his first official in-office interview to Arabic television. Then, he surprised the Muslim world by talking calmly, rationally, and at length about issues that greatly concern the Muslim world. He told them he had Muslim family, had lived in the largest Muslim country in the world, and that he respected their culture and beliefs.
In a singular interview he set the tone for an entire administration: “I will respect you. I will listen to you. I will even engage you. And then I will be my own man and make the decision that needs deciding.”
Because that’s all anyone can ask of another person. Listen to me. Respect me. Engage with me. Then do what you gotta do.
Ironically, Bush and Obama aren’t that far apart on a lot of issues, particularly in foreign policy. Where entire universes separate them, though, is on the issue of tone. (But this posting isn’t about their policy, okay? So, forget those comments.)
What we say is important. How we say it, however, is everything.

Consider two approaches:
1. A guy and I are chatting. I say to him, “You haven’t called…” but with a suggestive grin, as I step in closer, then trace a finger down his arm.
2. This time, the guy enters the kitchen where I’m working, I bang the knife down on the counter, and snap both suddenly and loudly, “You HAVEN’T called!”

They’re the exact same words. One utterance issues a challenge, but the other extends an invitation. Both are trying to reach the same destination: Making him regret not making the call. But what kind of regret? More importantly, to what end? In one scenario I’m going to get laid, in the other I’m going to get a long and unpleasant night or a door slam.
Tone is everything. How we say what we say, and do what we do, changes everything.
Unfortunately, the tone coming from top down in the United States has isolated the world in recent years. It’s been disrespectful and non-inclusive. It hasn’t been inviting, but always challenging.
Imagine living any relationship that way?
Tone is a hard thing to achieve. I know that I, personally, have grown away from having that erudite diplomat’s tone over the last few years. I’m hoping Obama’s daily media presence and his efforts toward the proliferation of “tone” will remind me to make more efforts on that front.
I can be very diplomatic. I just haven’t been. It’s like I just said “fuck it” sometime last year and ran with that for a while after working in a job where I had to both censor myself and my blog for the better part of a year. I still have my “toneful” moments. But that’s the problem: That I know how good at tone and communicating I can be, so when I’m failing to be all that, well. It’s failing, right?
My thoughts just now as I sat down to write were along the lines of “What if?” What if I start being that übercommunicative Steff more often? What if I extend invitations daily in life, inviting others to comment more, be included more? What if I offered more consistency about what I say and how I do things?
The reality is, I’m always going to be opinionated, sassy, and blunt. That won’t be changing. The difference is, I can be all that while still listening more and communicating better with others this year. I want to remember that what I say IS important and that I should take a moment not only to compose the words I’ll be expressing, but that I should also consider the tone in which I’m about to say it. I want people to want to drink ME in because they feel like I’m drunk on them. I can do this, have done, but ought to do more of it.
Often, communication has to come from an other-centred place. It’s about them, you, us, they, but NOT me. Not for now.
We could all be a little more other-centred in our communication for a while. We’ve lost that over the years. We’ve become perfunctory. We’re surfacing. We talk all the time, yet nothing is ever really said. And, tone? What tone? We’re all communicating electronically. There may be tone, but it’s a monotone. The vehicle is the great electronic void, after all.
The good news for us is, it doesn’t have to stay that way. And now we have someone actively demonstrating that daily. And he’s the most powerful man in the world. Apparently, with great power comes great respect. Who knew?

4 thoughts on “Saying What's Meant and Meaning What's Said

  1. Kat

    Agreed. Intention is indeed everything. I know that with all this quick communication that can get lost in translation so when we opt out of real life talk with someone for something like IM, sometimes it could be a great disservice.
    Twitter has even gotten me in trouble on that front. Twitter is word bondage, restricting you to 140 characters. Most times that is enough but sometimes it has caused many a misunderstanding. This should implore people to revert back to the age-old concept of asking someone before making an assumption. WEll, that might be wishful thinking on my part.

  2. Holly Page

    Emoticons exist because we’ve lost the ability to communicate tone. I agree that electronic forms lack that depth, and grant people the anonymity to say things they never would in person. And there’s been a bleed into how we communicate in real life. On twitter, we can all talk at the same time, so why should we have to listen and wait our turn at dinner? I hope you’re right about Obama modeling respect and diplomacy!

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