by Patrick Quanten MD
The last fifty years have seen a rapid expansion in the way people are able to communicate with one another. Technological advances have opened up numerous possibilities of various ways in which we can contact each other and as a result there are messages flying left right and centre everywhere. At no other time in human history people have been so connected. And yet, at the same time there is a sense we have lost something.
Teachers and parents alike have commented on what they perceive to be a decline in standards. Writing skills have deteriorated due to the acceptance of abbreviated and phonetic writing in order to shorten the space taken up by messages, as space costs money, and due to the increase in spoken word communication. Mobile phones allow people to talk to each other at all times, as do internet chatting and dictation tapes. This has reduced the need for proper written expressions, but it has also introduced the sense that communication has improved. We have the feeling that when we speak to someone our messages are better received than when we write them down. And yet, we all experience frustration when we find out that even the spoken word isn't always heard the way it was intended. Many arguments develop around the theme "but I told you" - "no, you didn't".
The Meaning of Words
The language itself has changed enormously in the last fifty years compared to the previous five hundred years. The Oxford dictionary has had more updates in the last thirty years with serious consequences for the language and our understanding of it then in its entire history before that. Part of this can of course be explained by the introduction of new words, some of which have been questioned by scholars, but other changes have been allowed to the way we use words. People have changed the meaning of words.
"Cool" no longer means fairly cold, it also stands for trendy and different in an acceptable way. "Freezing" no longer means that it is freezing, as in the temperature is below zero centigrade. It is also used to indicate that a person is or feels very cold even if the temperature is well above the freezing point.
"I'm in agony" is frequently used by people to describe the discomfort they are feeling to their doctor. This is hard to connect to the fact that that person has just walked into your surgery chatting away to the secretary about the weather, the kids and anything else that is topical. A person who is in real "agony", who is suffering extremely, does not have to tell you that; most of the time that will be obvious to everybody. The effect this way of communicating has is to devalue the meaning of the word. We no longer associate the use of the word with the extreme suffering it truly stands for.
"Gay" used to mean happy and full of fun. Does any of the youngsters still know what is meant by the expression "gay Paris"? Nowadays you would be very careful to tell your neighbour you were having "a gay day"!
What can be the reason behind those changes? Why would we have a need to change the meaning of words? One obvious answer could be the fact that we are looking to express different things and are stuck with old words to do it with. Or it may be that we are trying to express the same things in a different way. Why would we need to? To attract more attention? Why? Because we want to stand out, be noticed? That is of course exactly what they are doing with adverts. How do you make people take notice of your product amongst a whole bunch of similar products? You need to make it stand out. How do you do that? Yes, you can put it in a very different packaging format; or you can make it the price very different; or you ensure that people remember it for a very different reason. And this could be a different slogan.
This is where words will be used in a way they were not meant to. Because if you use words to mean exactly what you say, it wouldn't catch people's attention in the same way. You are looking for the words to stand out, to stand apart from the meaning they already have. So you sell beauty products "because you're worth it"; washing powder that washes "dazzling white"; cars that give you the "ride of your life"; a bank that "listens"; a shampoo that "strengthens" your hair; a face cream that "stops the signs of ageing"; and so on.
We have become surrounded by meanings that have been specifically invented or adapted to surprise and stun us. That is how our attention is caught and the product linked with the clever play on words is sure to be etched in our memory. That's the objective. Now we come to the side-effects of this process.
First, there is the fact that the particular words and phrases used will never be the same anymore. As more and more of these enter the common language it creates a growing confusion amongst the population as to what that particular word stands for. The industry that is selling the product knows damned well that the more confusion it can create the greater the impact will be on the average person's brain and consequently the more popular their product will be. This increases the market share and the profit.
But secondly, and possibly more worrying, is the fact that the more our world gets infiltrated by this system, the more we ourselves will become accustomed to the process. The more natural it becomes to find new ways in which words might be used, the more we will be looking for it. Why? Because that in itself will make us stand out. And society celebrates the different, the new and the eccentric. Comedians are constantly looking to change the meaning of words in order to create their own niche in the world of laughter and the world at large. And we are all doing it.
More and more our world, and our word use, has become focused on issues that were private. Having the world at large discuss, use words, what is primarily a private matter has lead to the introduction of meanings to words that were previously unknown to most of us. The whole industry surrounding sex, eroticism and love has overthrown and messed up individual communication. Two people used to have an idea what they meant when they said they loved each other. Now society as a whole is putting out ideas amongst the population that leads to people using the words but no longer understanding which of the meanings is meant by the person speaking the words. What does love mean? Well, "if you truly loved me, you would ....", has many different endings to the sentence. It even inspired a whole one-picture cartoon series, called "Love is ..." Expressing your love in your own individual way is no longer acceptable, as society has already created an image of love that needs to be adhered to. Flowers, chocolate, a surprise exotic trip are all part of that illusion. If you are not interested in those things or you have no time or money for them, your expression of love may no longer be heard or it may have lost all value.
The Meaning of Actions
As we can no longer be sure about the meaning of the words we hear, we also have become confused about the meaning of behaviour.
As men accept that when a woman says "no" they don't always mean "no", and as many women agree with this, it also has become common place in the Western modern society for men and women to show large parts of their body in public. This used to relate to intimacy and privacy but has now been taken to the streets of every city in the Western world. We no longer are supposed to interpret this act as an invitation to intimacy, nor should we look upon it as a privilege only the select few are privy to. It has become an expression of freedom and being freed from the shackles of religious and secular ruling obviously now needs to be shown on our streets. The consequences, however, are not so easily dismissible
One cannot in a blink of an eye, a twist of a hand or a shake of a dog's tail forget and alter what centuries of tradition have engraved in our senses. We like to believe that we only know what we learn from our childhood onwards but science has proven that babies and toddlers have an innate sense of the basic traits of the society they were born in. They have a strong leaning towards the traditional values of such a society and as such young children are very likely to tell you in very exact terms what is right and what is wrong even with little or no tuition in that direction.
The more children are then exposed to the influence of the media and the wider communication channels this society is using, the more confusing the messages become. We are supposed to do good, but society shows them evil pays better. We are supposed to love our neighbour, but society puts you in the spotlight when you do wrong to your neighbour. We are supposed to love people, but society rewards sexual prowess Young developing characters are more likely to be influenced by such messages, but we should not annihilate the changes that are taken place in adult behaviour now that would have been totally unacceptable a mere thirty years ago. This is sold to us as tolerance, while the truth is that we have become less tolerant to all. The emphasis in our modern life is squarely on revenge, inflicting suffering under the guise of justice, and getting our own back. We are full of ideas regarding compensation and equality, even where there are clear differences. If men and women were supposed to be "equal", do the same jobs and have the same priorities, I trust the Source of All Life to have made them the same. Equally, accidents happen and they are not necessarily someone's fault.
Body language has changed just as much as word language. In the days when people had to go and see someone in order for them to be able to talk to them, voice intonation, the look in the eye, the posture of the whole body were all tools with which people would talk. In many instances, it would be that kind of language that would be saying far more than the words. We would not only use it all the time, we would also be experts at reading it. It was an integral part of our language system.
Nowadays, much of our communicating is done without the benefit of body language and consequently many more mistakes are being made. Contracts and agreements are prepared by computers and agreed by people who don't know the first thing about each other. People "meet" on the internet, fall deeply and passionately in love with someone they know nothing about. The main point here is not that it happens; the main point is the deception of our mind that underpins this system. Today, we no longer know that we don't know anything about the other person; today we strongly believe that we do know everything about that person. Why? Because we have been communicating for so long. We have been talking and exchanging messages for so long that we believe we have known this person all our life. It is the lie that makes this system so sad and so dangerous. In earlier times, when people chose to be with someone or to do business with someone whom they didn't know, they knew they made that choice. Today, however, we live the illusion that we are dealing with a known factor when the truth is very different. The reason for that is the way we communicate these days.
It is the world of profiteering that has encouraged a communication system, which has dropped its safeguards. Person to person we have a way of matching up what we hear with what we see and feel. Video footage and telephone conversations are no match for the skilled intuition that has kept mankind alive for thousands of years, the feeling one gets from another person. Although we are led to believe differently, there is a big difference between flying an aeroplane on a simulator and flying the real thing. There is the same difference between loving the image one creates of a person and loving the real person.
Because we no longer are skilled in body interactions as a serious means of communication, we are also lacking the skills to use the body to convey messages to other people. Touch has become a taboo in a society where the messages of touch have been distorted and used for other purposes. When society has reached a point where they have banned teachers from touching pupils, and that includes giving them a hug for comfort, because it may be interpreted as sexual harassment, we have implemented huge barriers to separate people off. There can be no real sharing, no real closeness between people without the language of touch to convey certain explicit and strong messages. Only seeing these in a sexual context does a great injustice to human knowledge and empathy. What does society do when a man and a woman embrace, kiss, or, god forbid, sleep in the same bed? Is there still anybody out there who might consider these two people to be close intimate friends who are able and capable of sharing life's burden? Does anybody still believe in integrity of the human race, of a man or a woman? Or are we all corrupted into believing that there is no good in the world anymore unless we all stay miles apart and only touch each other through the virtual world of the internet?
Touch is a powerful way of communicating with one another. We do acknowledge that as far as babies are concerned. We do know that the development of babies and toddlers is strongly influenced by the quality of touch they receive. And yet, shortly after that, we firmly destroy the whole idea by colouring the touch issue in dirty, suspicious and frightening colours in a brave effort to turn both adults and young children away from this extremely important nourishment. We emphasise bad touch, low quality touch and hurtful touch so much that we lose sight of the positive nature of this communication system. Our society, with its obsession for scandal and luridness, has almost glorified touch exploitation, even when it covers it under the disguise of condemnation. You don't get graphic descriptions in your newspaper or magazine of how attentive a husband was towards his wife, but you do get them, almost every day, about how many different sexual positions a couple managed in one night. Ever read an article about the man who came home from work with a bunch of flowers for his wife, or the woman who had prepared a hot bath and a quiet dinner for her husband? Not unless they weren't married and had indicated they enjoyed sadomasochistic practices!
As words have gained a greater variety of meanings, which has left us more confused than ever before about what exactly has been said, the language of the body has become impoverished. The grammar of this particular form of language has been so dramatically cut down to size that it no longer makes any sense any more. As we are no longer allowed to make a full assessment, we are clearly missing many messages and are stifled in the way we can express ourselves.
"Actions speak louder than words" is only true when the actions confirm what we want to see and hear. Otherwise they are dismissed as wishful thinking or living in a dreamworld.
On top of that, words can mean anything at all, depending on the interpretation that we care to put on it.
An era of greater communication is resulting in a much poorer format in which real people can get real messages to others. If we, as individuals, are no longer allowed to be honest about the way we communicate with each other, through words and actions, how can we remain honest with ourselves?