You have multiple opportunities for communication with another person, and often it turns out to be miscommunication. Especially with your partner. There are many reasons for this, and in this Insight, I am taking up one specific reason for miscommunication, or inadequate communication. Simply put, we use two different kinds of language – the language of commerce and the language of connection.
This is one of the Insights I promised at the beginning. It is an Insight that leans on philosophy and requires some sustained focussed attention by you. So, resist the temptation to yield to your short attention span! Stay with me – it is worth it.
Broadly speaking, there are two very different kinds of language we use every day to communicate. Whether we speak English, Dutch or Mandarin, this double use of language still applies. Both uses are important, but it is necessary to know what functions the two different kinds of language serve. Getting the two different kinds of language confused is one of the main reasons why communication fails in relationships. I’m naming these different uses of language as the language of commerce and the language of connection.
First, and it usually is the first, is the use of language for commerce, for business, for trade and exchange of information. The language of commerce is pragmatic and practical, and based on financial gain and loss.
The language of commerce discourages the personal pronoun, “I”. “It is preferred”, “research shows” and, “the code of ethics says” are common applications of this form of language. The language of commerce, of facts and data, is necessary for our function at home and at work. IT functions through this use of language. As do the instructions on your flat-pack, your notes from that physics prac, and your doctor’s report. Accounting, engineering and economics utilize the language of commerce.
Your in-house work emails, your high school essays, and a PhD flourish with this language. Education, in general, relies primarily on this use of language. The language of commerce is also the language of shopping lists and your diary. When you phone the plumber you will convey facts that let him know what he needs to fix. This language solves practical problems. You can see why we can’t function without it. However, when it is our only use of language we are in deep trouble in relationships. I’ll explain this later.
The language of commerce buffers us and clothes us with a uniform that everyone recognizes. It’s like the uniform of, say, the police. The uniform tells us what their role is; it is a collective role and not a personal one.
The language of commerce informs, but at the same time, it conceals. By this I mean you can hide your thoughts, feelings, preferences and desires in the language of commerce. This collective language enables us to get along together in the business and education world because we agree to the terms of reference. In fact, the collective pronoun “we” is often preferred to “I”.
While the language of commerce gets you through the week, it does not get you through the weekend – or your relationships.
The language of commerce is inclined to use the passive voice. Anyone who writes blog posts knows that the passive voice is discouraged in personal communication. Yet, we are trained so well by the language of commerce that we use it out of habit most of the time. For instance, I have to use the passive voice/language of commerce in some of this post. Most likely you can throw away the dictionary and thesaurus because the language of commerce does not need a big vocabulary. It needs words for weights and measures, time and money – and buying and selling.
You probably find yourself using the language of commerce in daily conversation with friends over coffee, and with mates over a beer after work.
“I’d definitely go with Telstra! Optus has such poor coverage here.”
“Not in my area, mate. Optus has the cheapest plans.”
“Did you see the adds for the cheap tools at Bunnings? Just the things you were looking for!”
“I never go to Bunnings, I’m a Cairns hardware man, I trust their quality. But did you see that Honda have special offers on their end-of-year models?”
“What do you think of the State of Origin results last night?”
Although these are your mates, what you are bonding over is commerce – or sports. You are bonding over brand names, value for money, and agreed standards. There is nothing wrong with this, but there is a lot more that communication can do, especially in your relationships.
The second way to communicate is through language that connects, evokes, describes, and is much more personal. It is the language of beauty, intimacy and feeling. It requires the personal pronoun “I”. You as a person are included in this use of language – it is individual. For instance, you say ”I love you”. You don’t say “love is the preferred way of relating to you”. Well, you might say that, but it would sound pretty weird, right? Terms of endearment are a form of this communication. You don’t find “honey” and “darling” in the flat pack instructions.
When you are talking to your new-born son, your language is full of warmth and cuddliness, appreciation, terms of endearment, wonder at the newness and beauty of him, fun and delight. Or concern and worry when he is sick, or you don’t know how to respond.
If you are very good at the day-to-day language of commerce you might well be struck dumb when you and your wife have a miscarriage. Or when your father has a stroke. Or when your sister suffers domestic violence.
You might offer physical assistance – and that is invaluable, but what on earth can you say? Has your vocabulary for the language of connection shrunk? On the other hand, it might not been very large in the first place. Are you confined to “sad, mad, bad and glad”? I’m guessing too, that sometimes you resort to anger when really you are just lost for words to communicate anything more complicated.
Poets exist through this kind of language. Poetry evokes. The language a poet uses connects me to human experience, to love and loss, and hope and loss of hope.
For example, we love Michael Leunig the poet and artist, because he brings us back to that special place that comes alive when we hear and use this kind of language.
Well, speaking for myself, I soften. I am glad to know what makes my partner tick. I appreciate the person, rather than the job. I am more kind and compassionate. Indeed, we all rely on the language of connection to express kindness and compassion. The language of connection is not political. For example, when Michael Leunig ventures into politics he gets all kinds of criticism. I for one want something that touches my heart, not my political persuasion, when I hear from a poet. (Although Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, wrote very poetically about politics, too. You’ll also find some of his love poems through that link.)
The language of connection is revealing. You reveal your love, hopes, dreams, fears, resentments and shame. In so doing, you allow the other person to see you. Yes, indeed, when you use the language of connection you feel vulnerable and exposed, which is one reason why you hide behind the safe language of commerce. We both want to communicate and are afraid of what that communication might require of us, or reveal of us.
Here is a quote from Donald Winnicott, the child psychiatrist and author:“In the artist of all kinds one can detect an inherent dilemma which belongs to the co-existence of two trends; the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.”
Inevitably, if you want to build connection, meaning, intimacy and closeness with your partner, you need to build your vocabulary so it is adequate to carry the heavy and precious cargo of deep and varied feeling. You are going to need the language of connection
So, talking about the weather, the stock exchange or the latest product in your favourite brand, or your favourite band or app will just not cut it.
Communicate. Reflect. Ponder.
Take the risk!
In order to cultivate communication and reflection a good place to start is Tom Drummond and his emotion vocabulary list, downloadable as a PDF. How many of these words do you actually use, in your bid for connection with your partner?
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Copyright Kaye Gersch 2018.