Be Scrupulous With Your Words, Lenient Towards The Words Of Others

Russian writer Evgeny Chirikov, Wikipedia Commons

Why is articulation HARD? What differentiates humans from beasts? Why are communication skills so critical? Was Nietzsche right — are we All Too Human? What about St. Augustine’s famous line about error?

No matter how great our effort, words always come up short. Contentment with one’s articulation about X is a rare thing indeed; there is always a way in which I could have expressed myself better: a deeper and more attractive explanation, better terminology, the use of a story, and so on. Semantic and other such mixups are too often the killer obstacle in conversation and debate.

Being scrupulous with your own words, and giving less weight to the words of others, is a rule that has served me very well. It encourages me to always be trying to improve my communication skills, acts as a guard against hubris, helps me empathise with the words of others, underlines the defining flaws of many important conversations (at the societal and individual level), and is generally just another way of abiding another golden rule: always have the thinking apparatus engaged.

But it’s not so simple.

First, following your own advice is one of the hardest things. You are the easiest person to fool; you will play many tricks on yourself, consciously and not, to get out of something — anything — uncomfortable, effort-intensive, hard, complicated. Naval Ravikant defines wisdom as following your own advice. We know that even Seneca couldn’t follow his own advice; but less known is that he admitted to this in one of his letters, where he said he writes first and foremost to remind himself of the way the wiseman should live.

Second, mindless compliance to the rule is probably worse than no rule. Giving less weight to the words of others doesn’t mean give no weight — not even close. It’s not about disregarding your conversation or debate partners words but never losing sight of the fact that communication is hard:

  • People say things they don’t mean. Whether out of emotion, error, trollery, lack of a sufficient vocabulary, or whatever, what one thinks and how one expresses themselves are not disconnected as much as they’re never entirely in accordance.
  • We don’t really know what we want to say, what we mean, what we think. In the air is this idea that you shouldn’t say something unless you know what you want to say, or unless you know that what you say will contribute in some way. This is extremely harmful. An incredible amount of our thinking is done through communication — journalling, speaking with friends, speaking to oneself, art. Without communication, less thinking gets done — perhaps none. I need to be able to say something about X to learn if and where I am wrong or right about X; and this is true at every layer of the stack: from the fundamental axioms to the high-level definitions of common terminology. 1
  • How one expresses themselves is rarely how they’re heard. Perhaps as a the listener, you’re tired or foggy, or you’ve just had a bad day.
  • Between participants, definitions of concepts and words are seldom the same. And where they are the same explicitly, implicitly they may not be. Of course, how defining X is also a matter of communication, which brings us back to…
  • The speaker may be afraid to say what they actually mean. This is less thought about that it should be. It’s wrongly assumed that what a person says about X captures all they think about X, or even what they think is important about X. Perhaps the environment isn’t right, or they’re not yet confident enough to make that point; whatever the reason, there’s always the possibility that ignorance and/or evading of particulars is not a true reflection of the existing knowledge between each agent.
  • Words are not the only thing. In fact some argue that words should be the bottom concern, citing body language and tone as equally or more important.
  • If you’ve committed to constant improvement of your own communication skills, what are the chances that the other person has? And what are the chances that they even care much about precision?

If true listening is actually about speaking (recommended), ie, that you show you’ve listened and understood someone by how you communicate back to them, then as a default mode of operation, putting less emphasis on the words of others opens us space to focus more on understanding what they are trying to say. You can then steelman their points before moving onto your own piece.

Another thing to consider in any conversation is the frequency at which free passes are given out. Whether out of kindness, weakness, not wanting to embarrass the other in front of their date, or whatever, all too often someone will say something and it will be let slide by the other participant(s). In debates, teaching environments, casual conversation and family get-togethers, this is likely a wise strategy; further, asking ‘Why?’ indefinitely may uncover more truths but at the expense of what – a relationship? a pleasant environment? Kids have more room to ask ‘Why?’ as many times as they want; adults have to get things done.

But the other extreme is too many free passes, and it doesn’t take that many. I noticed this tendency in myself as a teenager, and made a commitment back then to have something like the opposite as a default mode — namely to push even harder if I notice in myself even flirtation with the idea of giving this person a free pass. This gives me room to dish out free passes when they’re least expected.

Nietzsche was wrong: we’re not All Too Human. The Human Story is one of us repeatedly laughing in the face of such claims as we’re too this or that to do this or that. If our most distant ancestors believed that they were too weak or too ill-equipped or too ignorant to master fire or take down a mammoth or leave the only land they and their ancestors knew, there wouldn’t be a Human Story.

Our ability to create, innovate, overcome the odds, solve ‘impossible’ problems and explain the world is what separates us and animals; it’s why we’re special; it’s how we’ve come to this astonishing stage on the timeline; it’s the pen with which we’ll write new chapters.

It’s not in our nature to settle for things as they are; we’re at our best when tangible progress is being made which can be traced back to our own efforts. And we’re at our worst when the opposite is true. That others speak lazily, and talking over each other is the norm, and we aren’t ‘wired’ by evolution to be good listeners, does not mean you should do the same.

In the same way that you force yourself through a painful leg workout, or how you make a conscious effort to impress your date with not just your appearance but choice of words and conversation topics, or how against all the odds you say ‘No!’ to that preposterously delicious-looking dessert, so too should your effort be great when it comes to non-trivial conversation.2

Evolution has wired us for results by Whatever Means Necessary, and listening isn’t obviously a better strategy than brute force if you really want to get what you want. But brute force does have consequences; it’s the way of animals, and human beings aren’t animals. Conversation is the only means by which we can make the advancements we actually want to make.

There are several definitions that come to mind for the word ‘conversation’; it goes without saying that we aren’t talking about weather patterns and water-cooler gossip here. It is obvious when a conversation is a conversation which matters, and it’s precisely then that we should be very careful with the words we use.

But errors will be made. Next to the fact that it’s time-wasting, possibly insulting, and just not important if you get the point, intolerance towards the sloppiness of others is not conducive to progress. In fact it’s worse: because stasis isn’t really a thing (there is either growth or decay; where it exists, the state of stasis is a well-designed and extortionately expensive operation) as long as intolerance towards error is maintained, little or no progress is made. And that is not good.

Intolerance is of course an untenable position once you accept that you yourself are not perfect. And you aren’t. Fallor, ergo sum, said St. Augustine. To err is human. Latin has never been my strongpoint, but I think we can do better:

Fallor, ergo sum, et necessario.

You guessed it: I err therefore I am, and necessarily. Error is necessary in order to move forward. We are all humans who error. By recognising that yes, words always fail us, and that the words of others aren’t as important as what they’re trying to say, and that sloppiness is widespread, but that communication is the only alternative to coercion and brutality, and that we can become more skilled at it, we can become more effective at getting what we want — be it a promotion, a date, a better world, the presidency, or whatever else.

At the individual level and the societal level, communication skills have a massive pay-off. Making the commitment to improving them whilst never losing sight of the difficulty, is like planting a tree that will once blossomed repeatedly bear the most wonderful fruit you’ve ever tasted.

So go get the shovel.

  1. Humans advance not by armchair contemplation, reliance on epiphany, messages from the Gods or some other low-engagement activity, but by error correction. We do something, it fails, so we try again with an altered strategy; never-ending execution of this cycle has enabled us to create this unbelievable civilisation, and it’s the mechanism by which we’ll continue to advance. It’s not the successes that teach us but the failures: every failure is knowledge gained about what does not work. Hence when it comes to saying something potentially wrong or inaccurate or shallow, tolerance is mandatory. Of all the ways to think (writing about the topic, debate, problem-solving in your sleep), conversations is the most effective means of becoming shaper, more accurate, and of course, better at communicating.
  2. Though even trivial conversation might benefit from more attention to language. It’ll also keep things oiled.

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