Talk – or “Because the face, it ain’t listening”

Picture of a Hand with a drawing of a Manga Heroine and

High fives! Pic by Laurixi28 @ deviantart

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Talk recently (that’s right, capital T!), and how it affects life in general. The reason for all this thinking is that my PhD supervisors thought that it would be a good idea for me to read a book that focuses exactly on Talk (The book I’m talking (hehe) about here is Julian E. Orr’s fascinating workplace ethnography “Talking about Machines”). And oh wow, were they right! So many reflections on my past life in various roles related to helping people use, come to grips with, or understand technology within organisations!

What they wanted me to realise is that Talk is done in order to do things. We catch up with people through Talk, we show affection through Talk, and in the case of the book, we (putting myself into my old Technician shoes here, and seriously, if you have ever done or supervised any customer-facing field service work, go and read that book! Now!) construct narratives that help us solve problems – through Talk.

But Talk is imprecise. The way each one of us humans does Talk is shaped by our previous life experience, by our surroundings (scientifically speaking, contexts), and of course our vocabulary. This is probably one of the reasons why subject experts tend to talk using different words for certain things – and also, why our own Talk changes as we get better at things (I still remember when what used to be simple plastic for me became a multitude of different things – PVC, ABS, you name it – all with different properties). So when I, as a young kiddy engineer in school, talked about plastic before, I really talked about an abstract thing that actually did not really exist – it only existed in my own reality, because those who knew what it really was, called it by a different name. Their Talk was different to my own Talk!

And this is where things get gritty. If my own word “plastic” means something different than my neighbors’, how can we make sure that we end up talking about the same thing? (There’s at least one other angle on this as well – see Schopenhauers “Eristische Dialektik” for his sarcastic treatise on how people use foul moves to “win” discussions – a funny and priceless (as in possibly free, because old) read for anyone whose work involves Talk… but wait a minute, isn’t that everyone?!)

So, the first step to communicating and discussing effectively is probably to realise that a mismatch of wording has happened (hopefully this happens before items are being flung around the room), and then explaining to one another what was meant in the words that were used. And this explanation needs to take into account the person we’ve been talking to – their history and context (you know, their surroundings 😉 )!

Therefore, and this is the heart of this post, the key to effective Talk (which can lead to Change, oh yeah, capital letters, folks!) is understanding others, either through acquiring the way they Talk and using that, or through enabling them to use your way to Talk – which, by the way, is one thing effective teaching (and its counterpart, learning) does.

And that’s that! That’s what I wanted this blog post’s Talk to be about.

Now, if you have any thoughts about this, let me know! I also, of course, don’t mind you sharing it 😛


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