Tim and I have been meeting with a counselor (not marriage counseling… it’s a private matter, thanks for your concern). The counselor is legally blind. I wondered whether his blindness gave him any type of advantage or disadvantage compared to sighted counselors. He’s not seeing facial expressions, but perhaps he’s picking up nuances in voice inflection or word choice that sighted counselors might miss.
I looked for some peer-reviewed studies, and I was surprised to find very little information available. I did, however, come across this fascinating blog, Insight for the Blind.
More words, please.
Our counselor instructed us to be free with verbal cues where we might otherwise use non-verbal gestures like smiling or nodding. Like words, one’s facial expressions can be manipulated to create a clearer impression of the heart, or perhaps, a false impression. Skilled negotiators, successful business people, politicians, and the like seem to have a knack for seeing and hearing minute details that others miss — a micro-expression like a curled lip or wrinkled nose, an awkward sentence structure or slightly elevated inflection.
Perhaps we rely too much on one form of expression over the other as we communicate. In the age of technology and digital communication, we can potentially under-rely on both.
I’ve never met one of my coworkers. Her name is Payal. She lives in India. When I tell her about a conversation I had, I say, “I talked to so-and-so…” When she tells me about a conversation she had, she says, “I had words with so-and-so…” I like her way better. It emphasizes the mutual exchange of words.
Just the other day my twenty-one year son cautioned me, “Humor doesn’t translate well in text messages, Mom.”
For most of us, we have to be careful about relying too heavily on digital communication. For some people, like film critic Roger Ebert, digital communication is (in Ebert’s case, was) essential.
When [he] lost his lower jaw to cancer, he lost the ability to eat and speak. But he did not lose his voice. In a moving talk from TED2011, Ebert and his wife, Chaz, with friends Dean Ornish and John Hunter, come together to tell his remarkable story.
It’s called Remaking My Voice. Ebert said,
For billions of years, the universe evolved completely without notice. Now we live in the age of the internet, which seems to be creating a form of global consciousness. And because of it, I can communicate as well as I ever could. We are born into a box of time and space. We use words and communication to break out of it and to reach out to others.
For me, the internet began as a useful tool and now has become something I rely on for my actual daily existence. I cannot speak. I can only type so fast. Computer voices are sometimes not very sophisticated, but with my computer, I can communicate more widely than ever before. I feel as if my blog, my email, Twitter, and Facebook have given me a substitute for everyday conversation.They aren’t an improvement, but they’re the best I can do. They give me a way to speak.
Not everybody has the patience of my wife Chaz, but online everybody speaks at the same speed. This whole adventure has been a learning experience. Every time there was a surgery that failed, I was left with a little less flesh and bone. Now I have no jaw left at all. […]
When you see me today, I look like the Phantom of the Opera. It is human nature to look at someone like me and assume that I have lost some of my marbles. People talk loudly and slowly to me. Sometimes they assume I am deaf. There are people who don’t want to make eye contact. It is human nature to look away from illness. We don’t enjoy a reminder of our own fragile mortality.
That’s why writing on the internet has become a lifesaver for me. My ability to think and write have not been affected, and on the web, my real voice finds expression. I have also met many other disabled people who communicate this way.
One of my twitter friends can type only with his toes. One of the funniest blogs on the web is written by a friend of mine named Smart Ass Cripple. Google him and he will make you laugh. All of these people are saying in one way or another that what you see is not all you get.
While I would disagree with Ebert’s self assessment, “I look like the Phantom of the Opera,” he did have a permanent expression of open-mouthed astonishment due to having no jaw. This, in combination with his inability to speak sheds new light on what I wrote earlier:
Perhaps we rely too much on one form of expression over the other as we communicate. Or perhaps, in the age of technology and digital communication, we under-rely on both.
The internet is giving voice to people who would otherwise be isolated or marginalized. Ebert said,
I am productive. If I were in this condition at any point before a few cosmological instants ago, I would be as isolated as a hermit. I would trapped inside my head. Because of the rush of human knowledge, because of the digital revolution, I have a voice, and I do not need to scream.
Fewer words, please.
The internet may also be creating an entirely new way of communicating with one another in face-to-face conversations. I’m not sure how accurate what I’m about to write is, because it is based on fading childhood and teenage memories contrasted with clear, fresh adult ones. But I’ll write it anyhow: It seems like people interrupt each other more than ever before.
Have you ever watched the news, and there’s some debate between a few people, and everyone starts talking at once? And they aren’t doing it by accident? One person continues to talk, knowing full well that another person is talking at the same time. It’s like there needs to be someone in a black and white striped shirt who blows a whistle and calls foul.
It’s that bad.
No room for words
Quiet people seem to open up in conversations with fewer people involved. I suspect it’s because the natural flow of conversation with four or more people seems more like a competition for air-time, like a real-life Twitter conversation, where everyone is hoping they can say something trendworthy. In one-on-one conversations or conversations with three people, there’s less urgency to contend for the attention of listeners. But when four or more people are present, the competition begins.
When quiet people begin to speak, someone interrupts, and they stop speaking. By the time a pause in the conversation opens, they’ve forgotten all about what they had intended to say before, because they were too busy LISTENING. Or if they still remember, the conversation has evolved into a completely different direction, and their comments are no longer relevant to the topic at hand. Well, they should speak up then, people say, as if there were actually a natural opportunity to do so.
But it’s not all bad.
Let’s have words.
We now have face-to-face conversations we might not otherwise have had, because the internet is acting as an ice-breaker. Take WhatGodDoes, for example. Certain subjects are glossed over or avoided altogether in the institutional church. When I wrote blogs about the things that were not being discussed, I lost my job. Sure, that might look bad, but getting fired for proclaiming that Jesus actually succeeded in His mission to seek and save the lost, and not just some, but ALL of them — this was a real-life conversation starter.
Life naturally makes a stir—it seems inevitable that it should do so—and it is better that men should think, even though they think amiss, than that they should not think at all! I am not aware that the cattle in the fields have any diversity of judgment—it is no cause for wonder that there should be agreement where mind is absent. But it seems all but inevitable that where there is mind, where there is thought, where weighty subjects are considered and discussed, there should be differences of opinion. And it is better that there should be those differences than that there should be the apathy, the indifference, the smell of death! — C.H. Spurgeon
Some people don’t know how to handle the fact that the ice is breaking. They use tactics ranging from discreet avoidance to open shunning in order to circumvent those virtual world conversations that have shown up uninvited in real-life, face-to-face communication.
Making space for words
Ebert said, “We use words and communication to break out of it and to reach out to others.” Think about it. Creation itself was formed via the Word of God.
And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.”
As human beings created in His image, our words have a power that extends beyond the space and time in which they are first spoken. Words can be used to inspire, encourage peace, or usher in necessary change. The words of grown-ups help shape the kind of people children become, and those children, as grown-ups, do the same. As a society, we are influenced by the words of people who have been dead for centuries. Yet as powerful as words can be, they require space and time in order to be.
On the internet, space and time are abundant. Words have room to be. At their convenience, people can take five minutes to give words a once-over or five hours to dissect and scrutinize, and then challenge or digest.
In the real world, we need to be mindful about providing each other the space and time for giving and receiving words. Ask questions and then actively listen to answers without simultaneously forming a response. Practice listening without judgment. Pay attention to what people say and how they say it. Use words, as well as vocal and facial expressions that reflect the intentions of the heart. And let the internet be a real-life, face-to-face conversation starter.