JOE FER­GU­SON, PhD

PhD Clin­i­cal Psy­chol­ogy, Field­ing Univer­sity MBA, Whar­ton School of Busi­ness

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

Af­ter the fact, peo­ple often want to de­fend them­selves on the ba­sis of the words they lit­er­ally used rather than what they clearly meant. While backpedal­ing, for ex­am­ple, you might try to re­verse your­self by mak­ing a claim like “...but I said you were right” when what you ac­tu­ally said was “...yeah, right” in that sar­cas­tic tone that slips out de­spite your best ef­fort to act like an adult. The mean­ing of words can­not be prop­erly un­der­stood with­out also hear­ing their prosody, which is the rhythm, em­pha­sis and tone that tells us what a speaker re­ally means and whether he is ly­ing. The ab­sence of prosody is what makes Stephen Hawk­ing’s ro­botic voice so strange. The ab­sence of prosody is also what makes email and text mes­sages so easy to mis­in­ter­pret. With a phone call you get the voice and prosody back, with Skype you get fa­cial ex­pres­sions and eye move­ment, and when you are face to face with a per­son you also get their body lan­guage, odor, and a whole range of in­ter­per­sonal sig­nals you are not even aware of.

Be­yond the tran­script and the prosody, there is the larger con­text that de­ter­mines what is re­ally go­ing on in an ex­change between two or more par­tic­u­lar peo­ple. An other­wise cut­ting in­sult de­liv­ered by one good friend to an­other may be prop­erly un­der­stood as an ex­pres­sion of in­ti­macy. See what we can safely say to one an­other? We are that close! Or a truly cut­ting in­sult can be de­liv­ered to an in­ti­mate part­ner in a way that no third party could rec­og­nize for what it is, which is as­sault with a con­cealed lin­guis­tic weapon. You know what I mean.

So there are at least three dis­tinct lev­els on which the words that are di­rected at you can be in­ter­preted, or mis­in­ter­preted: the tran­script, the prosody and the con­text. Fail­ing to rec­og­nize this ac­counts for about half of all hu­man com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lems. This is one of those things ev­ery­one knows that should have a ma­jor im­pact on their lives, but often doesn’t. Trust me. Call me.

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