When words don’t reach….

Humans are social creatures. Regardless of how we came to be socially involved, the fact is that everyday people interact with one another constantly through many different mediums of communication. We consistently say things to others for a variety of reasons, but there’s one underlying question that may pour through our minds: were we understood?

Let’s begin with the fundamentals of conversation: one person says something to someone else. Within that one statement, several things have to occur. A thought has to initiate in the mind and then the brain signals through neurons to the muscles surrounding the mouth, neck, vocal cords, throat, lungs, and tongue in addition to any that cannot come to mind right now. These muscles send air through the vocal cords on their way exiting the body. The vocal cords shift the air in order to produce sound coming through the mouth. Thus a sound is made.

From that sound the second person picks up the vibrations of sound waves in their ears at the eardrums. Those waves are transmitted into the inner ear and deciphered through motions in the cochlea, which transmit the signal to the brain. In the brain the signals are converted to meaning using parts in the temporal lobe. From there the idea is submitted to our higher consciousness and only then is a message received. Notice how truly complicated that simple step is?

I could detail how many ideas I could imagine that would interfere with that one step, but I’m sure you wouldn’t care for an essay. Let’s just say that what we send and what we hear may not be the exact thing we think we hear. We fill in blanks with what we’ve heard before, mishear what is being said, and say what we don’t mean to say. Those are all mechanical errors related to the physical process of speech and hearing.

So when a message is completely sent, that’s only the first portion of the problem. As humans have changed over the years, so have our linguistic skills. We’ve developed many different languages based on the sounds that come from our mouths so that we can and can’t communicate. If you don’t want someone to hear your meaning you can use a new language to hide said meaning as long as it can be decipherable to your true recipient.

In addition to different sounds with different meanings we have adapted to using different characters to display meaning on paper/screens. I’ve been learning how to read Japanese, but if someone presented arabic letters to me I could not tell what the meaning behind those characters was. It’s the same with this post. You’re only able to understand what I’m saying because you know how to turn the characters I’m typing into something meaningful.

So why have I brought this topic for discussion? It’s a common theme in anime as well as all entertainment to use something that is incomprehensible to some party as a plot device for confusion. It can be used as a clever twist for an ending. 999 comes to mind as having used it that way lately, but it’s far from the only one.

It can also heighten disbelief at times. In Gosick episode 3, we discover that in a prior Running of the hares, children from different countries were brought together with different languages. It’s mentioned that they could not speak the same language, yet they were arguing less than a minute later in the show about a possible murderer. It was a big plothole in a decent story.

So with all of the barriers surrounding communication, we still manage to find some way to pass on meanings to other people. Whether it be via common languages (apparently everyone in the world speaks the same language as the target audience) or through mannerisms (mimes, the universal translators) we are able to find some way to pass on what we are trying to signal. It’s rather amazing how we are able to do so at times with all the difficulties we have.

So could a situation like the suitcase in Clannad occur in real life? In today’s world where images can travel around the world I’d say it’s very probable that there would be someone to provide a translation for an image. Danboru allows users to translate text on Japanese images and that’s just one example. In 2003, when the series was supposedly set, it’d be much more difficult, but still possible.

Besides sounds, we also communicate by non-verbal gestures. Nervous patterns, physical contact, and visual contact are always mentioned when non-verbal communication is mentioned academically, but my favorite example are suit actors. Carrying a character’s mannerisms without the aid of any speech is an incredible act. Being able to differ between characters like Seiji Takaiwa does with Kamen Rider leads is absolutely marvelous to watch. Each character has signature and non-signature movements that are unique, just like we all have our own quirks.

So in the end, what is communication but our own way of meaning something. Whether we truly mean it, as in a giant hug to a loved one or are not-so-truthful with lies, we consistently communicate with each other in some fashion. It’s being able to cross through the difficulties that are present that make the true meaning something special. Thanks for reading.


2 thoughts on “When words don’t reach….

  1. I took an anthropology class in college and one of the things that stuck with me is how closely language and culture are related. The Japanese have a ton of different words for rice depending on how it’s cooked, etc., as well as different words for family members depending on whether it’s your family or someone else’s. We only have one word each for these things in English however. Why? Because these things are not as relevant to our culture as they are to Japan. Likewise, we have more words that mean “drunk” in American English than most other cultures XD

    It’s also amazing how much we rely on facial expressions and body language. It’s really hard to talk about something even remotely enthusiastically without moving your body in any way. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like talking on the phone – I can’t see the person’s face or body language and have to rely solely on their tone of voice, and that makes me kinda uncomfortable.

    • I agree with talking on the phone with people but I think I prefer the thought that I’m physically with someone rather than seeing them. I have a bad habit of looking away from people when talking so sight isn’t something I’m too worried about. I can’t say how many times I’ve been talking with people on the phone and say “oh, if you were here I could draw a picture” or “show a picture” of what I’m talking about but that lack of visual cue harms conversations.

      It’s not just words in cultures but actions as well. How many times do you hear someone say “Thank you for the meal” or “I’m home!” unless it’s a big occasion? Cultures take for granted different things (safety, manners, responsibility, etc) and the way we speak and act represent that culture.

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