Descriptions and Communication

Why do science geeks, such as myself, ask so many questions?  Well, there are a variety of reasons, but one of them is to verify that what we think you said is actually what you said.  You see, there is a difficulty with communicating.  It is that we can’t ever know what you actually mean when communication occurs.

So, questions become important to verify the message that was intended was received. Don’t think of questions as attacks on you or your character, but as a means of confirmation.

Think of it this way.  If I say, “Draw a red box”, then there are many possible results.

Red Boxes

So what did I actually want?

There are four major aspects of the process of communication: The message, the encoding, the transmission, and the decoding.  Ideally, the message is exactly the same after decoding as it is when it was encoded.  but we can easily see from the message above that this is not the case.

First you must have a message.  This isn’t what you say.  This is what you say, the reasoning behind it, the experiences that have brought you to this point in life (thinking, emotions, ect.) and everything that influences how you think and interact with others.  Needless to say that all this is extraordinarily difficult to compress into a couple of sentences.

But these factors are critical to how you think and your intentions with your message.  Your object is to get all of that across during the communication process.  In the red box example, a small child might mean the first one.  An engineer or artist would probably mean one of the latter two (just because they tend to think in 3-D and more complex art forms).

Second, the sending party has to encode the message in such a way as the receiver will be able to decode it.  If you speak to me in Gaelic, then even if I get your transmission perfectly, I still won’t have a clue as to what you’re talking about.  I can’t decode Gaelic.

The sender of the message must understand his or her audience in some significant fashion so he can choose an encoding mechanism that will get the message across with as much fidelity as possible (at this point we’re talking about the message, NOT the transmission of the message).  A commonly understood language is the best start.  However, even with a common tongue, the sender needs to make sure that word choice is appropriate and understood by both parties to mean the same thing.

I have to be very careful in my work to not use words that are inappropriate for the audience.  In fact, I have a very large book of words and the grade level of students that, under a fairly normal education, should understand the common meanings of that word.  Then I choose a word that is two grade levels less than the students I want to communicate with.

Let me give you an example of the difficulty even in a common language.  I say the word, ‘turkey’.  Your first thought may be of the bird, probably cooked.  You might also think of the meat of that bird.  However, ‘turkey’ is also an adjective meaning someone being kind of a jerk or an idiot.  Oh wait, it’s also a country.  It’s also used in bowling as a score referent.

And that’s a very common kindergarten grade level word.  You begin to see the difficulty here.  So, the sender of the message needs to either explicitly state how he’s using the word or create sufficient context that there can be no ambiguity on the part of the receiver.  Unfortunately for the sender (and this is vitally important) it’s not up to him to determine if his message was appropriately constructed.

If the receiver doesn’t get the message, then the sender failed in his task.  It doesn’t matter if the receiver is stupid or the message was garbled in transmission or the sender is stupid.  If the message was not understood properly, then it can only be the sender’s fault.  He either constructed the message inappropriately or he failed to take into account his audience.

Next we get to the transmission.  There have been tomes written on this, so I’ll just touch on it here.  (Look up Shannon Information for a good survey on this.)  The sender must select an appropriate mechanism to get the message to the receiver.  I’m doing so right now via English text (which is very different from English speaking, for reasons that should be obvious).  However, I also have to send this message via a variety of electronic devices and systems to get to you.

So, the message is being encoded by me, transmitted to my computer, encoded electronically, possibly compressed, transmitted to various places, decoded by the computers there, that message is rendered in a format that should be visible, which is then transmitted to someone’s eyes.  Then the message is encoded into a pattern of light, transmitted via EM radiation to the eye, encoded again by the rods and cones transmitted to the brain via nerve cell,and the brain must perform multiple decoding steps on the message.

It’s a stunning example of how powerful our brains are that we can even understand each other.

At any point in those transmissions, we can lose a piece of the message.  A very well constructed message means that even if small portions are lost, the receiver should be able to still get the original message.  A poorly constructed message means that if anything is lost, the message is unintelligible.  Fill in the blanks

The apple is _____________________.

Macintosh apples, when ripe, are colored _______________________.

Which blank do you have high confidence of filling in correctly?  Notice all the detail in the second sentence that allowed you to know what message I was trying to get across.  The first sentence could have literally any descriptive word or phrase in that blank.

Finally, we get to decoding.  By now you’ve probably figured out that this isn’t going to be as easy as you might have thought.  Decoding is not a trivial process.  The whole job of the sender is to make the decoding process as accurate as possible.  Not as easy as possible, not as quick as possible, but as accurate as possible.

The receiver will decode any message in terms of his or her background, knowledge, experiences, etc. etc. etc.  These can have huge implications for the message.  This is especially true when communicating with someone from another culture or country, even using a common language.

Again, the job of the sender is to make the decoding as accurate as possible.  If the message is vitally important, then the sender must make sure that all necessary information to properly decode the message is included.

Military personnel generally have a good handle on this process.  First, of course, is that they share a common language and culture.  The also have a great deal of training on exactly how to speak in certain situations so that even terse messages are understood exactly.  Finally, messages are returned.  The receiver re-encodes the message and sends it back to the original sender for verification.  This ensures that all messages are understood by both parties.

Some people who have known each other and communicated with each other for a long period of time may have this same degree of shared experiences and culture so that messages can be understood… even if those messages could never be understood by anyone else.  To a long time married couple or two best friends since high school, a couple of words, an ‘umm’ and a shrug can communicate a great deal of information.

Now we get to the point behind all this.  Descriptions.

Scientists and those types like descriptions.  I’m also something of a creative writer and one of my writing professors drilled descriptions into us over and over.  He wanted to bring pornographic novels to have us read because of the effectiveness of the descriptions in them.

Scientists, engineers, and like minded people will often describe things (equipment, procedures, results, etc.) in mind numbing detail.  This is to ensure that there is no ambiguity in their message.  They don’t say, “It was big.”  They say, “It was 832.6 meters measured with a 420angstrom laser rangefinder (model SX-420A11 by LightDyne systems inc.) calibrated using the IEEE standards one day before testing took place.”

The second is harder to encode, more difficult to transmit, harder to decode, but it is extremely accurate.  That’s the goal of communication.  Accuracy.

When dealing with no scientific ends, the point of communication is often not so much to relay a detailed description (such that it can be recreated exactly), but to invoke a particular emotion, feeling, or response from the receiver.  The more descriptive the message, the more likely the receiver will generate the correct response.

Which brings me to the entire reason for writing this article.  I was listening to a certain album this evening, while driving along.  I happen to like it a lot and much of the reason I like it is the singer’s voice.  So, I was thinking of how to describe her voice.  And then got to thinking about communication.

The first, easiest, simplest, mostly accurate, but dull, boring, and failing to generate the emotional response I desired.

She has a lovely voice.

As I said, I have taken creative writing and enjoy it to some degree.  So here’s my later attempt to describe her voice.  I hope that this description is more accurate, entertaining (which should be a part of all communication, IMHO), and invokes the proper feelings in my audience.  You be the judge.

Her voice is the vocal equivalent to the richest, darkest, smoothest chocolate.  It is deep, powerful, and vibrant.  When she speaks, angels stop to listen, never having heard anything so wonderful in all their existence.  She could describe, using the coarsest of language and the most graphic details, how she beat a puppy to death with a brick and everyone listening would hope that the puppy lives just a little longer so she would continue to speak.  She could read pages from the phone book and cause a sexual reaction in any sexual creature, even if had died months before.  The merely perfect wish upon every star that they might be able to match her voice.  Her singing shatters mountains, stops the rain, and forces the sun to shine, then returns them all to their appointed place before one even has a chance to realize something has changed.  When she stops, it is as if a little piece of our souls have died, only to be returned when she sings again.

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