R: “What are you playing at?”

G: “Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”

—Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildernstern Are Dead

My recent-inbox counter incremented by one, and I was between tasks, so I went to take a look. It was a notification from Facebook:

Jesse Gardner commented on a link you shared.

"*gets some popcorn*"

The Facebook Team

I couldn’t figure out what would have provoked that sort of comment, so I went to look at the link I’d shared and came away even more confused. What about the link was popcorn-worthy? It wasn’t even a case of being an inappropriate response: it was so out of left field, it seemed literally disconnected from the post. I seriously wondered whether it was a reply meant for some other post, accidentally dropped onto mine by some combination of multiple browser tabs and mental distraction.

So I asked, and it turned out Jesse was actually replying to an earlier comment on that link. Once he clarified, his comment made perfect sense, and it was in fact quite funny. What had seemed like a complete non sequitur was revealed to fit seamlessly into the conversation.

Words have such power, but none of it their own. The words “commented on a link you shared” are so neutral, they make the Swiss look hyperpartisan, and yet they were sufficient to fit into my mental state in such a way that I was led completely astray. I was so taken in by the idea that Jesse was commenting on the link, I never stopped to ask if he was participating in a conversation.

It wasn’t the words that led me astray, but my interpretation of them. I led me astray. Everything I brought to that moment of reading, all my experiences and biases, took the incredibly banal concepts encoded in those arbitrary marks and came to a conclusion that had nothing to do with Jesse’s original intent. An entire flowering construct of incorrect, misleading assumptions grew out of that simple moment of unconscious interpretation.

No matter how hard we work to be clear, no matter how many words we spend on precision, no matter how carefully we choose our words, what people find in our words is more a product of their views than our efforts.

This is the dilemma of communication: we cannot control how people hear us, and yet cannot declaim all responsibility for what they hear. If we express ourselves badly, or in a way that is misinterpreted by many, that is on us.

This is the dilemma of communication: we cannot control how people speak to us, and yet cannot declaim all responsibility for what we hear. If we misinterpret another’s intent, or listen in bad faith, that is on us.

Words have such power, but none of it their own. We invest them with all the power they have, each in our own way. We rarely think about it, rarely make conscious decisions about what power we invest in which words. I think we think far less about what we hear than what we say, and still less about why we hear what we hear.

Nothing about communication can be entirely one-sided. We bring ourselves to the words that pass between us, every node in the network running on a unique protocol, striving for clarity in a landscape that seems built for confusion.

This is dilemma of communication: words. Words.