I concluded an international exercise last week after three weeks of working with multiple western and African partner nations. My department worked with folks from at least seven different nationalities, of various training backgrounds, and under a U.K. led planning process. It. Was. Tough. I left each day exhausted, barely able to haul my body down for lackluster dinner and my allowed two glasses of wine. It took me a while to understand what was draining my energy, it was not just the pace of the work, or even the frustrations that inevitably come along with any multi-national military exercise, it was the energy it took to communicate – across languages, cultures, ranks, and military specialties. The energy, time, and patience it took to communicate relatively complex ideas and tasks to senior members, to work on systems that didn’t talk to each other, and to complete the tasks I was trying to communicate on a rush schedule left me depleted. Communication is exhausting.
The basics of communication theory state that a person with a message must encode that message and then transmit it. The audience receives the coded message and then must decode that message. While the process is only three steps, there’s a whole lot of room for error there – starting with how the transmitter chooses to encode his or her message.
The most basic of signifiers are words. The words of a language are literally code – if the five letters c-h-a-i-r conjure up the same image for you as they do for me – we speak the same language. If we don’t literally speak the same language, or use the same code, it becomes nearly impossible to communicate.
But words are not the only ways we communicate. We use tone, pitch, speed, and volume to add something to our words. We, sometimes unintentionally, change the meaning of our coded messages with our body language or facial expressions. We use those tells, learned over time, when we decode the messages of our loved ones. If we don’t know someone, however, it’s hard to know their tells. How do I know if that Greek is yelling or just talking? Is the quiet Chadian angry at the brief feedback or just reserved? Is Holly mad at me or is that just her RBF?
As hard as the process of communication is, it is even harder to choose to communicate – truthfully and directly. Communication isn’t just hard to do, it’s hard to choose. It’s hard because it can leave us vulnerable. Speaking our truth opens us up, and leaves us open. In order to communicate, to really communicate our feelings or thoughts, we have to first identify them. Then we have to expose them. It’s hard to admit to yourself that you feel jealous or hurt. It’s even harder to tell someone how you feel, sometimes harder the more you care about them. When you communicate your true feelings, you put yourself at risk for more hurt through ridicule, dismissal, or rejection.
Identifying and communicating your feelings is often considered weak. Those who do so are often labelled as “sissy,” or “touchy-feely,” or my personal favorite “snowflakes.” (Don’t worry, I’ll stay off my political and social soapbox on this post). Growing up in the Midwest, I’m very familiar with the social and cultural boundaries on communicating true feelings – especially when those feelings are sadness, inadequacy, hurt, loneliness, or rejection. I tease that we like to shove all those emotions deep down and cover them with whiskey until they all transform into anger, like a reverse coal to diamond process. From there we Midwesterners let that block of newly formed anger sit in our souls, blocking us from true connection. Or we let it explode at the family gathering of our choice, like lava searing any connections we do have. Neither option sounds great when you think about it, but they do protect you from feeling vulnerable, and at the time of pain we often chose protection over connection.
It no wonder why we often choose to shut down, to break communication, to give each other the silent treatment or end friendships. With all the energy it takes, all the risks for miscommunication and added pain, why communicate at all?
Because communication is an absolutely necessary component of any relationship. Without it, we fail to form even the most basic of relationships, forget about any of the real, deep connections that we are all programmed to desire. Without connections, who would we be? Miserably lonely people, scared of others and scared of ourselves, wiping our Cheeto stained hands on a sagging couch while we throw an empty whiskey bottle at the nightly news. Or even handsomely dressed in a richly decorated McMansion with no one to share celebratory champagne, or grieving tears with. Same sad outcome, different W-2.
Communication is how we share ideas, strengthen bonds, and even know ourselves. It’s how we grow ourselves and our connections. It’s how we build communities. In fact, those two concepts are coded the same, both from same root word meaning to “make common.” It’s how we make friends and keep them. It’s how we can share our pain and our fears, lessening our burden and finding comfort. It is how we move through our demons. It is how we can avoid that anger volcano at the next Christmas or the sad dissolution of a once vibrant relationship.
So no matter how exhausting it can be, how many times we encode it wrong, or they decode it inaccurately, if we get hurt or rejected a few times, we have to keep communicating, with ourselves, with strangers, and with our loved ones.