By Malika Noor Mehta
It may sound bizarre, but human beings sometimes fail to grasp the staggeringly complex notion that we need to communicate to be understood. Ideally, verbally articulating a few clear, coherent sentences would be pleasant. Of course, sometimes we try mutely gesticulating. Or simply giving someone the menacing side-eye in hopes that all our inner turmoil somehow becomes apparent. Sometimes we simply sit still and think, expecting that without us uttering a word, the other person will intuitively guess our hopes, dreams and desires. Clearly, we are rational beings.
We all know that communication is the bedrock of relationships. In an ideal world, we would have mastered this art as infants, expressing our exact needs, desires and fears clearly and succinctly. No fuss. No meandering. No incoherent, incomprehensible sounds that leave the listener painfully confused. In reality, however, we stumble through our own thoughts and express them with similar clumsiness. Perhaps, this is because we are rarely taught the nuances and intricacies of this complex, critical art form.
So let us start this discussion at the beginning (I’ve dubbed myself the “ever-so-slightly obnoxious moderator” obviously): What is communication?
Communication is the exchange or transference of emotions, thoughts, beliefs, opinions, and/or facts between one or more living beings, through speaking, writing, reading, listening, observing and/or touching.
What are the many types of communication?
While the spoken word lies at the core of what we think of as communication, living beings do convey their opinions and emotions through body language too.
For instance, it probably would not be too difficult to decipher my opinion of a certain orange-haired fascist who refuses to exit office in a graceful manner by simply examining my facial expressions.
As I read the news (if one can still call it that – more like comedy central) about said fascist, my eyes would likely narrow. My cheeks would probably turn a deep shade of maroon. My eyes brows would rise slowly. My lips would purse, I am sure. It’s all there.I am communicating without emitting a single sound.
Similarly, if you drive along the promenade called Marine Drive in Mumbai at around 11:30 am on a Tuesday (or any other day), you’ll find couple after couple huddled together. Heads on shoulders. Hands clasped tightly together. Barely an inch between the two bodies. Each couple faces the Arabian Sea, so their backs are likely turned to you. Yet, you just know there is love in the air. Their body language says it all. They’re not only communicating with each other, but also with the rest of the world. Through these small embraces, these subtle gestures, they’re declaring their feelings publicly. No words needed.
On the flip side, as we drive by, we hear their silent declarations. We understand their body language and we listen to their unsaid request for privacy (even as they sit on Marine Drive for all the world to see).
Communication is not only about performance– the performance of words, gestures, expressions – it is also about stillness – the unstated, the silence, the absence. Communication is about listening and perceiving as much as it is about speaking, observing and acting.
If this art form remains as multifaceted as it is, how do we figure out the best way of communicating?
Are there certain fundamentals we must employ, no matter the person with whom we are communicating? Well, the answer is more complex than we might hope.
No matter the relationship in question, respect remains fundamental to communication.
Words or gestures laced with respect are hard to ignore and even more difficult to reject. Respect is the easiest way to prevent a situation from escalating beyond our control. We may firmly disagree with the thoughts of another human being. In fact, we may view this person’s opinions as harmful, cruel or deplorable. Yet, the ability to listen openly and respond with self-restraint – be it through gestures, actions or words – prevents violence, mental or physical.
While respect remains critical, honesty is not always necessary (an opinion that might prove somewhat controversial). Human beings are complicated, temperamental creatures. While we think we want our friends, family and lovers to be brutally honest and open with us, most of the time this is not true. We want to hear what we want to hear. And if we do not hear exactly that, we are likely to consciously or unconsciously get angry or hurt or sad.
Honest communication needs to be employed subtly, taking into account the circumstances and emotions of the other person. For instance, we may dislike our friend’s new partner. Yet, it is not always fair (or our place) to openly state our opinion about said partner to our friend. Now, if this partner is abusive or cruel to our friend, the situation shifts. At this point, it is perhaps important that we are honest even if it is uncomfortable. Ultimately, circumstances dictate the need for honest communication, but it is always a subjective consideration, one that must be intelligently contemplated. Honesty should never serve as an excuse for heartlessness.
How does communication differ depending on the nature of the relationship?
Each type of relationship requires a different form and tone of communication. While chatting with friends on WhatsApp, we employ a certain lighthearted lingo. “Hey. How are you doing?” “What’s up?” “Cool. Sounds good. Speak soon.” We probably would not use such casual language with a colleague or supervisor, or perhaps even with an elderly relative. We may send heart emojis to our parents and romantic partners. We certainly would not do that with someone we just met.
In many ways communication is determined by the nature of the relationship. Communication style, content and tone evolve with the relationship, marking the transition from stranger to acquaintance to friend.
If we scroll back to our first conversations with our partners – perhaps during the courting phase – there is likely an undertone of nervousness mixed with excitement and a touch of banter. As the relationship grows and deepens, the nervousness transforms into comfort…but hopefully the excitement and banter remain.
Communication during COVID-19
Given the importance of communication, and the manner in which it impacts the very nature of relationships, the effect that COVID-19 has had on it cannot be ignored. The pandemic has changed the basic manner in which we communicate. Conversations that simply had to happen in-person have now been relegated to Zoom calls. In the last nine months, we have all celebrated birthdays, attended weddings, had Friday game nights, joined exercise classes, done therapy sessions, attended board meetings, all online.
This new virtual reality has altered both the ease and efficacy of communication. It is immensely frustrating to have the Internet connection drop in the middle of therapy or to not be able to sit face-to-face with your therapist as you try to dissect the inner workings of your mind. There are also those social Zoom calls that go on an hour too long, with way too many people attempting to say something, and therefore, no one really saying anything at all.
Yet, despite all the annoyances that come with online communication, many people explain how much more streamlined and efficient their correspondences have become. Works calls have shortened. Given the immense amount of “Zoom fatigue” (a term I think describes not just Zoom but any online interactions), people have essentially done what we always hoped they would: what could have been written in a one-line email is indeed being written in a one-line email.
The question, however, remains: how comfortable should we get with this long-distance form of communication? Should new relationships develop over the phone or through online chat-rooms? Should old relationships be sustained in this way too? What happens to the intricacies of body language and facial expression if you can simply turn off your computer’s camera? What happens to the nuances of tone if text messages and emails become the norm?
Human beings are social creatures. Inherent to this sociability is the art of communication. Face-to-face. Body-to-body. Engaging actively, listening attentively, speaking fervently. These actions tell us details about another human being that perhaps they could not describe themselves. What if we lose that intimacy? If the pandemic allows us to normalize the virtual world and primarily function within it, will the depth of our relationships ultimately diminish? Or will the very nature of relationships change to a model where communication actually loses its significance?