How to give directions to an old Portuguese man (if you don’t speak Portuguese)

This series of posts is not at all about Portuguese men. It’s not on giving directions either. Well, actually it is.

The topic: Communications

Part One

Information transmission

Chapter One

The Thing and the Brrrr

Communication may not really be a question of speech, tongue, or even structured conventional forms of oral or written contact, something we often refer to as “language”. It may only be the simple transmission of information[1] on the basis of common grounds, of a shared understanding. So, could it purely be about getting something across?

Common grounds. Literally. Often times in life, the barest of necessities are resolved by pointing—or even nodding— to a direction we want someone else to look at. When we walk together, two by two or in group, we usually agree without talking on the course to take, turn by turn, street by street. In a real tangible way, we are acknowledging intent as well as communicating it.

Shared understanding. My mother is constantly saying “the thing” in her conversations, e.g., “We were down in Farnham and we saw the thing, you know… my god, it’s falling apart!” Somehow, I figure out really quickly what “the thing” is, or at least I have a fairly good idea of what it could be.

But this example is not about me, really. And it’s not about my mother either, although some would argue that everything is about my mother! It’s about why she does not feel the need to find the right words, why she is not compelled to make sure I know she is talking about the old Hotel on Main street rather than the very old Anglican church, which also happens to be on Main street.

We all do it. Constantly. In a certain way, we rely on others to take the snippets of information we give out by ways of speech, and connect them with pieces they have to gather with their senses and their memory. If I am in the living room with my girlfriend and I tell her “Did you feel that?” when there is a sudden cold draft in the apartment, she’s likely to answer one of two things, depending of her experience of the surroundings. If she did feel a gust of cold air, she might say “Yeah! Brrrr. Did you leave the door open?” But if she did not feel the chill, chances are she’ll answer “What are you talking about?” So, really, “success” of this communication relies on whether we shared the same experience.

[2]That’s why I just might add a “Brrrr” before “Did you feel that?” This “Brrrr” was uttered to let my dearest understand that I suddenly felt cold. I know it’s not a simple reflex, because I don’t say “Brrrr” when I’m alone watching cop shows. I shiver, I shrug my shoulders—though often times due entirely to David Caruso‘s unmatched side-acting abilities, but I don’t say “Brrrr”. I said “Brrrr” because I knew that she would interpret this as such. This “Brrrr” is hardly equivocal.

In many many situations, though, you do not want your signals, or your words to be interpreted, like “the thing”, because there is a risk of ambiguity. This is where accuracy is required. What depends on that accuracy can be trivial or the highest importance. By lacking accuracy, the ensuing confusion can go from plain annoyance (I swear I thought she meant “foot” massage!) to disastrous consequences (What do you mean, no WMDs?!). And that is why we need to identify, before hand, the purpose of our intervention and the type of information we are about to transmit. Which is what I will delve into next.

Next Chapter Two : What is the purpose of your call, sir?

[1] facts, desires, intent, feelings. Yes, information has feelings too.

[2] Award for the most Brrrrs in one single paragraph


3 thoughts on “How to give directions to an old Portuguese man (if you don’t speak Portuguese)

  1. Very interesting.
    I wonder if people who have severe hearing impairments and use sign language experience the Brrrrs.


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