Stop Talking

When I googled “how effective is verbal communication,” all I got were people telling me how to improve my verbal communication skills.

I think verbal communication is better than a dog barking, a bird or a whale singing, frogs clamoring for attention, but it doesn’t work well, certainly not well enough to sustain a complex society

I’m not a fan of evolutionary psychology because I think it’s an academic game designed to get tenure and publish papers (i.e., get more money). Thus, I’m going to avoid the anthropocentric viewpoint that “evolution” made us perfect, while admitting that some cognitive functions make sense because they are similar to those of animals. For example, the suggestion that a large prefrontal cortex allows more effective tracking of other members of a social group is reasonable.  Primates form the largest groups and we are the primate with the largest PFC and the largest group size, about 150 for humans and 50 for chimpanzees.

Being able to cope with more members of our group does not mean that humans have been transformed into amazing communicators. It just means that we can communicate poorly with more people. That might sound unfair; after all, we use symbolic representations to communicate complex ideas like plans and wishes, something other primates can’t do.

True enough, but we do most of those information transfers using written language. Human society didn’t make much progress until writing was invented, not so with language. I’m all for writing our thoughts down and discussing them with others. Oral communications has a  lot of problems that don’t occur with written language.

For one thing we don’t have time to listen to a speaker because most of us can’t remember what they’re saying long enough to formulate a reasonable response. So, we do one of several things: (1) try to keep up and forget everything, then respond based on past experience (i.e. memory); (2) focus on one thing, usually either the first or last statement; or (3) try to grasp the key point, if there even is one, and thus misunderstand most of what was said. This last is different from (1) in that it results not from trying the impossible (following in detail), but from trying to compile a summary as we listen, maybe one sentence. It’s different from (2) in that we don’t focus on ideas but on words.

The only time we can successfully listen is when the speaker is talking about something with which we are familiar enough to use any one of these three strategies with moderate success. This is what happens at workshops and conferences, where coincidentally a personal response isn’t necessarily required or expected.

Unfortunately that isn’t how daily communications operate. When we speak to someone, or they talk to us, a response is usually necessary. The thoughtful silence referred to in fiction is more like an awkward silence in reality.

Thus, we’re always thinking of our response, missing what’s being said, screwing up our understanding, and doing a poor job of responding because we used one of the listening strategies listed above. How poor a job we do depends on our unfamiliarity with the topic and how complex it is. Often, strategy (1) works fine because nothing new is being said, as is often the case with family or friends.

There are techniques that can be used to improve random communications; simple methods like listening carefully, noting key points, asking for clarification. But as we all know, a conversation is a two-way street, and our partner doesn’t always cooperate. They don’t understand why we didn’t understand what they said. Weren’t we listening?

Everybody gets flustered, and listening strategy (2) takes over; unfortunately, we each focus on a phrase or concept we didn’t understand, talk at cross purposes, and the proverbial apples and oranges problem results. How many conversations rapidly deteriorate when a simple question leads to an argument about semantics?  Having dictionaries and encyclopedias at our fingertips only makes matters worse, because we forget what we were talking about to begin with. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

My final point is more controversial. There are basically two kinds of people in the world: those who talk to themselves and those who don’t. Neither has an advantage when it comes to oral communication. The self-talkers are so accustomed to hearing nonsense rattling around inside their heads, that they are adept at tuning out spoken words. The non-self-talkers don’t practice enough and have to think to respond, which leads to the awkward silence I referred to above, giving plenty of time for any number of misunderstandings to arise.

Here’s the bottom line: spoken language is a natural extension of the communications systems used by animals. We have extended it a bit but it doesn’t work very well. Writing was invented to accurately communicate abstract concepts.

If you have something important to share, stop talking and write it down.


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