Effective communication, brain hacking and diversity

Jesse Noller recently posted an interesting quote on Twitter:
"One who feels hurt while listening to harsh language may lose his mindfulness and not hear what the other person is really saying."
When you think about it, human language is a truly awe inspiring tool. By the simple act of creating certain vibrations in the air, marks on a page or electromagnetic patterns in a storage system, we're able to project our thoughts and feelings across space and time, using them to shape the thoughts and feelings of others.

While this ability to communicate is so thoroughly natural to most of us as humans that we typically take it for granted, it is actually an amazing world shaping capability deserving of our respect and attention.

And once we start giving it the attention it deserves, then we realise that we can judge the effectiveness of our own communication by looking at the communication that is subsequently reflected back at us. How well do those reflections mirror the thoughts and feelings that our own words were intended to create? It's the linguistic equivalent of running our code and seeing if it does what we wanted it to do.

All communication is a form of brain hacking, even when the only target is ourselves. We write lists of goals - formulating for our own benefit concrete plans of action that we can then tackle one step at a time. We write polemics, trying to engender in others some dim sense of the joy or outrage we feel with respect to certain topics. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail. Sometimes we assume certain shared beliefs and understanding, so the point completely fails to come across to those without that common background.

For those closest to us, those with the most shared history, we have a rich tapestry of common knowledge to draw from. Movies we've all seen, books we've all read, events we all attended, discussions we were all part of - outsiders attempting to follow a transcript of our conversations would likely soon be utterly lost due to the shared subtext that isn't explicitly articulated (and the same is true for any group of close friends).

As groups get larger, the amount of truly common knowledge decreases, but there's still plenty of unwritten subtext that backs up whatever is explicitly articulated. In a certain sense, that unwritten subtext can be seen as the very definition of culture - it's the things you don't have to say because they're assumed. My past musings on the culture of python-dev are an example of this.

And that brings us to the point of considering the opening quote, diversity and questions of common courtesy. When speaking to friends, I can share truly awful jokes without offence because of the shared background information as to what is and isn't acceptable (and what things should be taken seriously). As the group being addressed gets larger, then the valid assumptions I can make about shared views of the world become fewer and fewer, so I have to start explicitly articulating things I would otherwise assume, and simply not say some things because I know (or at least strongly suspect) that they won't come across correctly to the audience I'm attempting to reach. Sometimes even addressing similar groups of people in a different context can change the assumptions as to what is a reasonable way to phrase things.

If a member of my target audience gets hung up on my wording or my choice of examples to the point where they miss the underlying message, then to a large degree, the responsibility lies with me as the originator of the communication. Now, I'm not a saint and make no pretence of being one. The rich fields of metaphors in English include many relating to subjects that are truly quite horrific or otherwise offensive to various groups of people. Sometimes I'm going to use that kind of phrasing without thinking about it, especially when talking rather than writing (my own innate tact filter is definitely set up to filter incoming communication, so applying tact in the outwards direction is a conscious process rather than something I do automatically). If such a miscommunication happens and someone points it out, then the onus is on me to admit that yes, my choice of words was poor and obscured my meaning rather than illuminating it. That's life, I make mistakes, and hopefully we can move on.

It's not entirely a one way street, though. Just as we apply contextual analysis to our understanding of historical writings, so it can be useful to apply the same approach to things that are said by current figures. Richard Dawkins recently made some ill-advised comments in relation to Skepchick's advice to men to avoid certain actions that make them look creepy (that's all she said, "Don't do this, it's creepy" and she copped flack for it, as if she'd said people doing it should be sent to prison or castrated or something equally extreme). Does the fact that Dawkins clearly didn't get why he was in the wrong make him a horrible human being or devalue his extensive contributions to our understanding of evolutionary biology*? No, it doesn't, any more than Isaac Newton's obsession with alchemy devalued his contributions to physics and mathematics. It just makes him a product of the culture that raised him. Hopefully he'll eventually realise this and publicly apologise for failing to give the matter due consideration before weighing in.

However, what really surprised me is the number of people that indicate they're shocked by his words, or questioning their support for his other activities just because he so vividly demonstrated his cluelessness on this particular topic. The world is a complicated place and the social dynamics of privilege, cultural blindspots and effectively encouraging diversity aren't one of the easiest pieces to comprehend. Hell, as a middle-class, 30-something, white, English-speaking, straight, cisgendered male living in Australia I'm quite certain that my own grasp of the topic is heavily coloured by the fact that on pretty much any of the typical grounds for discrimination I'm in the favoured majority (being an atheist is arguably the only exception, but that's far less of a problem here in Australia than it is in the US. Our Prime Minister is an acknowledged atheist and even the Murdoch media machine didn't really try to make much of an issue out of that before the last election). I do my best to understand the topic of diversity based on the experiences of those that actually have to deal with it on a daily basis, but it's still a far cry from seeing things first hand.

So, since I don't believe I can speak credibly to the topic of diversity directly, I instead prefer to encourage people to reflect on the value and nature of communication and community in general. Martin Fowler wrote an excellent piece about the challenge of creating communities that are welcoming to a diverse audience without rendering them bland and humourless (as the benign violations of expectations and assumptions that are at the heart of most humour often depend on the shared context that welcoming communities can't necessarily assume). This excellent video highlights the importance of focusing on actions (e.g. "This thing you said was inappropriate and you should consider apologising for saying it") rather than attributes (e.g. "You are a racist/misogynist/whatever"). If the latter is actually true, you're unlikely to change their mind and if it *isn't* true, you're likely to miss an opportunity to educate them as they get defensive and stop listening (refer back to that opening quote!).

I don't pretend to have all (or even any of) the answers, I just believe the entire topic of effective communication and all it entails is one worthy of our collective consideration, since effective communication is almost always a necessary precursor to taking effective action (e.g. on matters such as mitigating and coping with climate change).

In many respects though, the entire topic is really quite simple. To quote Abe Lincoln in one of my all time favourite movies:
Be excellent to each other.

* Seriously, read the popular science books on biology that Dawkins has written, especially "The Greatest Show on Earth". They're orders of magnitudes better than "The God Delusion", which is far too laden with angry and aggressive undertones to be an effective tool for communicating with anyone that doesn't already agree with the thesis of the book. In his biology books, his obvious love and passion for the subject matter comes to the fore and they're by far the better for it.

Note for Planet Python: even though this post is about communication rather than code, I have included the python tag since a couple of different diversity related issues have come up recently on python-dev and psf-members. It is no coincidence that "communication" and "community" share a common(!) root in "communis".


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