the edges of language

Paul Klee

“That was the most awesome sunset, ever,” I declare, as I enter the dim living room.

My friend throws a magazine on the coffee table and says, “Sunset, huh? I don’t care.”

Notice how I said it was the most beautiful sunset. There are probably better sunsets and some worse ones too. But I didn’t stop to think these facts or make comparisons. In fact, I do not have any way of saying how one sunset can be better than the other. On this particular day I just met a cute girl in the park. And I’m elated and just being dramatic. The point is I’m happy, and my state of mind seeps in and colors my thoughts.

Let’s study the use of the word “most”. When we don’t have any way of listing a set of sunsets in increasing awesomeness, we tend to push things to the extreme. We either say, this sucks or that’s awesome. It is not a coincidence that people use the word “awesome” so much. They do not want to take a chance, by trying to give you a clearer picture of where this particular entity stands in the glorious order of things. Say the military wants to kill a person in an enemy city (hold off the ethics of this action). If they have the ability to put a sniper on a rooftop, they can hit this man with precision. The surrounding people will feel nothing more than a mosquito buzzing by. But if the military lacks that capability, they have to drop bombs wrecking an entire neighborhood. We face a similar dichotomy every time we try to express ourselves.

My thoughts exist in my body. When I put them in words and inflict them on my friend, the words have to go exist in a completely different surrounding. The thought, most beautiful sunset ever, has to leave my happy mind and exist in another person who is jaded. You can imagine this thought swimming free through my happy self, like an orange fish. I reached out, grab the fish by its tail, and put it in my friend’s head, where it’s hot and gusty. Too bad, fish can’t swim in air and wind.

Scientific communication is often precise enough to be calming. The core of this precision is numbers. Science has numbers. While you can purchase 2.5 kilograms of silver nitrate, you can’t talk about a 1.3 unit awesome sunset. Things get trickier on closer examination. The precision of the above communication is based not just on numbers but also on a precise common understanding of what a kilogram is.

How does this compare to our sunset situation? It will be tedious to talk about a precise standard for sunsets. Even if you pin down many elements of sunsets, like color gradients and brightness, we don’t have any means to measure beauty yet. Don’t dive into the “everything is relative” mud pool, because if everything is relative, then you can’t have a better taste than your 10 year old self.

Another reason for loss of precision is perception itself. Long ago, I learnt this statistical concept called normal distribution. It is an important idea in statistics that they have given it the imposing name – normal. Normal distribution looks down on other statistical distributions, as if they are all abnormal.

Normal distribution illustrates how measurable things are distributed in nature. For example, the height of human population is a normal distribution. There will be some very tall individuals and some very short ones. But most people will be close to the average height. That’s quite intuitive. But normal distribution gives precise details – how many individuals we can expect for any particular range of heights.

I get an ominous feeling when my dog flicks his ears and turns his head toward the door a full two minutes before the knock. The dog’s power seems magical and prophetic, but that’s only keen perception. Most things in nature are normally distributed. Some humans are born deaf and on the other hand, there are people with keener hearing (and broader range too) than the average man. And between the extremes, there is a full range of variations.  This is not only for hearing, but every sense and system in our body. Since our metabolisms are ticking at varying rates, how hungry we feel is probably distributed normally too.

Now let’s put these two thoughts together – perception is the basis of language and this perception varies from individual to individual in countless aspects (as per normal distribution). This includes everything from the senses, to the perception of concepts like time and values such as ethics. When we perceive differently, we are talking about different things – and we don’t have a common language.

The natural differences in perception are just one side of the coin. The other is experience. Try this thought experiment. Can a sagely old man look at a teenager, say a few choice words and pass on his profound wisdom? How much do you think he can pass on, to even a smart and willing teenager? Not much at all. In communications of this sort, language is only a part – immersion and shared experiences are equally important.

The Zen masters have figured this one out – the master would sit smugly and smile at the disciple. He is probably convinced that using language is not going to cut it, so he might as well be nice and smile (or maybe wisdom brings uncontrollable joy). The story usually goes like this. The master points to a flying heron to a clueless disciple, and years later, the pupil is reduced to tears when true understanding strikes him.

How does experience change perception? We can see a parallel to the interaction of the sagely old man and a teenager in inter-department corporate communications. Say I’m a graphic designer for 10 years and you’re a sales guru. But we’re both teenagers in the other field. And in our dealings, we are constantly exchanging the roles of the sagely old man and a teenager, never being on the same level of perception or communication. This situation unfolds constantly in modern work places. While it is good for companies to encourage their employees to specialize, they should also advocate a widening of experiences – learn a new language, go rock climbing. If you are a designer try your hand at programming, and as a programmer learn about marketing.

Language encapsulates experience, sometimes years’ (or even centuries’) worth. Conservation of Energy seems like a simple intuitive idea, yet there are two loaded words here – conservation and energy – gaining full understanding of which happened only in 1839 after several lifetime’s worth of thought by leading scientists. Once you internalize this experience and learn to express it in two concise words, you can build on top of that knowledge, in a way thinking “faster”. When you see people being impatient with others – like a teenager with her mom or an engineer with his manager – you are seeing this phenomenon in action. What she can say in just a sentence with her mental language takes a whole lot of regular words and still fails to express exactly.

One of the main dangers of language is the illusion of complete understanding it creates. Often people talk by the curbside, nod, shake hands and walk away with out having really understood what the other person said. Yet since each of them comprehended the spoken words and was able to create a meaning, they assume that communication has occurred. But is the meaning created in each of their heads the same (or close enough)? This problem becomes acute when the process requires imagination. I say “bird”, and you are forced to imagine a bird. I may refer to a swallow, while you picture an eagle. As the conversation continues, the difference in initial conditions snowball.

Climate scientists analyze polar ice and they can calculate how much carbon-dioxide was in the atmosphere when the ice formed. The deeper they dig, farther back in time they can see, upto millions of years back in time. Products are specimen frozen in time. You can look at a product and reason back to understand the process that birthed it. Consider the iPod. Many companies could see the iPod, hold it in their hands and yet couldn’t copy it in spite of large investments.

In a small start up company, one person can envision an idea, share it with his team and implement it. The team will either understand him or defer to his judgment. But as a company grows larger and the employee count rises to tens and hundreds, the common language is lost and is replaced purely by charts and numbers. It doesn’t have to be that way. Numbers, when they can live within a greater story and context can serve as an antidote to erosion of language efficacy as scale inevitably happens to any successful project.

This is the scary part – within our heads, even for ourselves, we think using language.  We cannot capture what we feel with full fidelity through language. And yet, language is all we have. Sometimes I sense a brilliant idea within myself, but when I put in words, it doesn’t feel special, it feels pedestrian, mundane. Maybe my thought was mundane, or maybe it wasn’t. It’s important to pay attention to the erosion an idea goes through when transformed to language. We should be aware that, in the fight for ideas, language often has an upper hand (over feelings and instincts).

Sometimes a feeling is just an idea whose language is still being formed. It is more than likely you are innovating with your thoughts right now. Be open to that possibility, nurture the gut feeling and give it a chance to redefine your language.

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