Posted by: MC | November 19, 2010

Taxis, TSA & the Imprecision of Communication

Tuesday night I was in a Taxi in San Francisco.  My companion and I sat in the back seat comfortable after another in a two-day series of divine dining experiences.  Earlier in the evening we had walked downtown sidewalks under a sky defined by elegant angles of glass and steel reaching to frame the gibbous moon and Venus where they glittered in their particular harmony.  We were looking for the Mexican fusion restaurant we had seen that afternoon.  Could it have disappeared in just those few hours?

After settling on second choice and lingering over the best squash soup in the history of food, we walked back out onto the bayside streets to hale a taxi.  I gave the driver our address and, in the way of such exchanges, he repeated it back.  Within a few blocks, the Mexican fusion mystery crossed my mind and I sat up to scan the roadside again.  My companion did too.  We chattered.  “Where is it?  This is crazy.”

Suddenly, the driver shouted at us.  His edgy voice fired over his right shoulder like a spray of darts.  “There’s too many hotels around here.  You should be more certain of where we are staying,” he spat.  “If you don’t know where you’re going, I can’t take you there!”  He was angry.  We were startled.  My companion retorted, “We gave you the address.  You should know where you are.  That’s your job.”  At that, the driver pulled abruptly to the side of the road and yelled furiously, “Then you walk from here.  Free ride.  You walk from here!”

We scrambled quickly out of the car, each of us blasted in different ways – confused by what had just happened.

San Francisco.  Three people.  Three different ethnicities.  Two different socio-economic levels. One giant miscommunication leaving everyone with something between agitated confusion and fury.  Add to that the fact that we were in San Francisco because of a conference focused on language and communication.

By nature this speaking and listening stuff is unavoidably imprecise.  Think of it.  Neurochemical activity occurs in a brain encased and thus isolated in the thin bones of a skull.  When that activity is interpreted as a thought worthy of speaking, it triggers the movement of the bones and muscles of the mouth which, in turn, form the sounds of language.  These sounds then fly through the air from a mouth and toward the waiting ears of a listener.  As the sound waves enter those ears they stimulate neuroreceptors that trigger their very own chemical responses.  Those responses convert to electricity that chases itself along dendrites and across synapses to reach processing centers in the temporal lobe that receive the signals and mediate them into thought.  Across such a process there’s a lot of room for inaccuracy.

The same thing can be said for the written word and the reading of it.  That’s probably why we have literary criticism.  It’s why things like poems and holy texts like the Bible, Torah and Koran draw such varied interpretations.  It’s also at least part of the explanation for the agonizing range in the competing renditions of current events we get via contemporary media outlets.

But in a taxi?  In San Francisco?  With the catalyst being language bubbling up from romance and delight?

When the imprecision of communication comes up next to the social dread of being judged to be wrong, a.k.a. stupid; the insidious odds against listening across differences become more understandable.  To avoid losing face we hold close to our beliefs and opinions including those about the idiots who understand things differently than we do.  This is the choice point.

We prove daily that we can continue to hold rigid views, closing ourselves to any chance of being persuaded and, finally, not communicating anything much other than rage, hurt and fear.  The flash points will only increase.  And, also more often, they won’t be as relatively benign as yelling and dumping passengers out of cabs.  The extreme intrusiveness of recent TSA x-ray and pat-down policies attest to how crazy we’ve let things become since terrorism of any kind is endemic of not listening – on all sides.

Then there’s the option.  It can’t happen just because it’s a good idea though.  It requires deep commitment and action for building the personal and collective maturity necessary for seeing the extreme danger in refusing to listen.  It requires moving from there to risk the discomfort of hearing and attempting to understand other perspectives.  Agreement will certainly not always be reached, but without slowing down to listen we guarantee that communication will cease being the hallmark of human intelligence and will instead lead to extreme destruction.

It’s ours to decide.

Join the EX:Change.

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