Communicating context and meaning

Recently, Mark Jennings posed an important question:

“Do words mean the same to say as to hear?”

Much of this subject is, I believe, quite well understood by people involved in communication theory and, particularly, in organizational communication.

There are experts on this subject: the person from whom I have learnt most of the following is Alan Nelson, when he explained the essentials of organizational communication, during an interview.

Meaning and context

If I say or write some words, then I do so in my context which represents my view of the universe, including my understanding of the subject area or lack of it, my language skills or lack of them, etc.. The meaning that I wish to convey, complete with all of its innuendos, caused me to select those words based on that context.

When you hear or read those words (assuming that they are transferred accurately from me to you), you attribute meaning to them in your context. Whether the meaning that you attribute to the content of the message is the same as the meaning that I intended when I generated the message (assuming accurate transmission) depends on the alignment of our contexts.

Alignment of contexts

The alignment of our contexts depends on a very wide range of factors including, in this case, on our speaking the same “language”, in the most general sense. It also depends on our shared knowledge of history, in the longer term. And it depends on our shared understanding of what we are talking about, in the shorter term.

The degree of longer term alignment depends on a range of factors, many which precede this communication. But the alignment of the shorter term factors depend on the preceding content of the conversation in which the message is transferred, including any previous agreements or disagreements about what we wish or intend to be talking about.

Channels of communication

To break this down, consider a simple example. If I say to you: “yes”; what does it mean? Of course, it depends on what you said or did before that, and our shared understanding that we are talking in English. In other words, all communication occurs in a conversation. We can build up all the rest of it from there. As I understand it, the communication theorists incorporate much more about channels with different levels of richness, depending on their bandwidth and the opportunity for interaction, etc..

There is a lot more to this than that, but that is probably plenty to provide a context in which to answer your question ;-). [There you go: what did “this” and “that” and 😉 mean?!]

And there’s more …

It is probably worth pointing out, however, that this has very little to do with words. In various situations, if one person nods their head or switches on a red light or sends any signal, then another person who receives that signal (or part of it, or a distorted version of it) is likely to attribute a meaning to the received signal, including recognising that there are multiple ambiguous meanings.

So the short answer is “no!”

In general, the probability that the attributed meaning is identical in all respects to the intended meaning is zero. But the probability that a sufficient proportion of the intended meaning has been transferred is greater: for simpler messages; when the communication channel is rich enough for the purpose; and when the contexts, in both the long and the short term, of the communicating parties are aligned.

I’d be grateful for any feedback from people who know about communication, in general, and organizational communcation, in particular.


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