July 23rd, 2006

mask, pensive, portrait

Thinking about communication

My friends, I am having a crisis of faith. (Not the religious kind; I don't have much of that anyway, and I wouldn't bore you with noodlings about details of theology.) No, I am starting to question my faith in communication.

I have always believed that communication is really, really important. Before I was even verbal my mother used to lecture me about how you should always be careful to communicate exactly what you mean and tell those close to you how you are feeling. And I've always lived with that principle.

It's doseybat who started me off questioning this. (She has been causing me to question my assumptions and encouraging me to make really progress in the way I think and understand the world for over a decade now!) She pointed out (correct me if I'm misquoting you) that in fact good communication is no guarantee of a good relationship, and most relationships that go wrong go wrong for other reasons apart from communication problems. We were talking mainly about romantic relationships but it's applicable to other kinds too. For example, if one person stops loving their partner and prefers someone new, the original partner is likely to be hurt and upset, and no amount of communication about what the situation is is going to change that the situation is in fact bad.

There's also all the issues around attraction and sex and that sort of thing. It's something I spend a lot of time worrying about: what if he thinks I'm flirting with him when I'm not, what if I say something general and it's taken as a personal insult, and so on. But it's possible that this fear is exaggerated, it's a leftover from adolescence when none of us had any clue about these things, and now that we are adults we don't need to spell everything out because we have enough shared assumptions and common sense that this kind of disaster isn't likely any more.

sartorias made a really interesting post about marriage in fiction. She points out something that I hadn't thought of: misunderstanding is a convenient way of creating narrative tension while still maintaining sympathy for both characters involved. (Of course, it can get really annoying if it's over-done to the point where the reader is left thinking, if only they'd bothered talking to eachother on page 1, the whole novel would have been unnecessary!) But just because a lot of fictional relationships run into this particular set of problems, it doesn't mean that this is a proportionately huge danger in real life.

I still think good communication is better than bad communication, and some communication is better than none. But I am really wondering if I'm making too much of it. If one feels obliged to discuss every detail of one's feelings and thoughts, that has the potential to get boring. And several people have suggested to me that my very direct style of dealing with attraction can be unromantic or even intimidating, compared to the more expected style of flirting based on lots of hints and allusions and playfulness.

Of course, there's a huge sample bias here; since I believe communication is very important, I'm drawn to people who also care about communication. Indeed, some of the people I love best in all the world are the people I trust to tell me about anything I might want to know of their inner state, and to clarify and make effort to be sure we understand eachother always. But I do know empirically that there are people who are perfectly happy in their relationships and friendships, without basing their interaction on talking about absolutely everything or even really on conversation at all.

If communication isn't the whole story, the major factor that makes the difference between good and bad relationships, then what else might there be? I'm tentatively inclined to propose the assumption of goodwill. Perhaps if there is mutual trust that the people involved care about eachother and don't mean eachother harm, any misunderstandings that might arise will be temporary and easily dealt with, and not the big terrible tragedy that I expect them to be.

I certainly don't intend to stop trying to make sure I listen and communicate to the best of my ability. But perhaps I should be less obessive about this point. What do people think?
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