See What I Mean, Not What I Say?
Underlying Functionality of Everyday Language
“Do you know what I am saying?” “Do you understand?” These daunting questions confront all of us at least once on a daily basis. To please the bearer of that question or to salvage our self-image, we often respond “Yes!” or “of course!” even if we have no clue.
Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines language as “a body of words and the system of their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition.”
Most language experts concur that language serves five functions: ceremonial, informative or declarative, expressive or exclamatory, interrogative and a directive or imperative. Errors in communication occur when we assume that usage equals function. Not understanding these subtleties leaves us open to manipulation. Therefore, we will examine these categories, and methods to safeguard or protect us from manipulation or miscommunication.
The ceremonial usage includes those everyday phrases, greetings and scripts that most people follow. “How are you doing?” is a phrase often paired with a greeting. By appearance, this phrase is a question. Functionally, it serves a ceremonial purpose. It is not that we do not care for the state of others, but the intent was mere cordiality.
We often forego this phrase when meeting those who offer a laundry list of ailments, or met with embarrassment when we respond “good” in anticipation of reciprocal cordiality that is never delivered.
The informative usage of language conveys information and/or data. Information does have a truth-value assigned to it. Information and data may be true or false, right or wrong, valid or invalid. Often times, informative language blended with expressive usage will serve the directive function.
Television advertisements and 24-hour news channels often utilize this method of persuasion. A spokesperson man stands in front of a backdrop of a late night police call with a family huddled under the safety and security of law enforcement officers. The spokesperson begins with crimes against property has risen “almost five percent” (perhaps 4.2%) which demonstrates informative usage. The spokesperson will state he or she is someone who loves and cares for family, which demonstrates expressive usage. In conclusion, that is why he or she contacted the ABC Alarm Company. This cleverly disguised informative statement is a directive, encouraging others to “call today”.
Polemic “News” shows often use this latter formula, citing an increase in terrorist activities coupled with the love of country, ultimately persuading others to espouse a certain belief or direct others to vote for their candidate.
Expressive usage of language reveals our inner feelings toward the world or our experiential self. We communicate our understanding of personal experience, or inner emotions by this format. We relish the words of poets, song lyrics, of others who communicate similar experiences. The expressive usage holds no truth-value, serving as a matter of opinion. As seen in the above examples, people often utilize expressive communication in persuading or dissuading others. Confronted we are with this persuasive technique on a daily basis from friends, family and the media.
The interrogative usage of language is a query as to how, who, what, when and where. The interrogative may be a legitimate inquiry or a rhetorical question. Others utilize the latter as a directive moving us to a certain opinion or an action. The spokesperson for the alarm company may ask, “How much do you love your family?” as a prompt to purchase an alarm package; or the polemical newscaster asking, “How much do you love your country?”
Finally, the directive usage of language motivates, inspires or initiates an action, or prevents an action. As with the other usages, other functions are implied. “Close the window” is a directive, yet may be an expressive implying a person is chilly or bothered by outside noise. More often than not, we find directive as function in the guise of other usage.
So how does one safeguard or protect against being manipulated or falling victim to miscommunication?
Recognize and know the source. Knowing the person with whom you are communicating allows you to have a better understanding of what he or she is communicating. If I am a paid spokesperson for ABC Alarm Company and I ask if you really love your family or possessions, you know that I am giving you a directive to purchase my product and, as a result, benefit me.
If I am a newscaster and pose the interrogative, “do you love your country and its flag?” while the broadcast company (i.e. the entity that pays my salary) benefits from political affiliations, you understand ulterior motives prompt me toward a given political stance.
Stay informed. Staying informed is a great way to combat manipulation and divert miscommunication. In this age of technology, one can stay informed on a regular basis. One can check information or data, or better understand what the other stands to gain from communication.
Awareness. Being aware of language usage, mechanics thereof, and its functionality allows us to understand not what people mean, but how people mean.