The Meaning of Meaning
In the accelerating swirl of the world right now we can increasingly overlook the importance of meaning. That was the topic of a talk I gave recently, and given the time of year, it’s a topic worth plumbing a bit.
The word is loaded. Meaning. On the one hand, it is everything, and yet at times, it can be too much. Heavy in fact. According to Dictonary.com, meaning means “the end, purpose or significance of something.” The value of anything is in its meaning. In that regard meaning is all there is, and yet, it is really easy in our 24/7 transaction filled lives to ignore it, to forget it, or to forego it because we just don’t have the emotional or intellectual bandwidth to embrace it. The meaning of things, the meaning of our lives, the meaning of what we have been given, the meaning of all that is good or not so good before us, the meaning of these recent holidays.
Think about it.
The holidays are not just vacation days. And whether you consider them holy days or not they carry much meaning. They carry memories of the important past, reminders of essential truths, the opportunity to connect with family and friends, time to restore, and the impetus to play and to even be merry…They serve as a gentle moment to embrace the present and contemplate our futures and the aspirations we hold.
And the wrapped presents we give and receive are not just gifts. They are symbols of meaning, of love, of caring and of direct consideration by people we care about and for people we care about. When was the last time you thought about that as you were ripping open a present, or using Amazon one-click to buy a gift?
Holidays or not, we are swimming in meaning. And yet we have a remarkable capacity to not get wet and to avoid diving deep into the ways and means of what constitutes clear and effective meaning. According to the Linguistic Society of America (yes, there is such a thing) “meaning seems at once the most obvious feature of language and the most obscure aspect to study. It is obvious because it is what we use language for – to communicate with each other, to convey ‘what we mean’ effectively. But the steps in understanding something said to us in a language in which we are fluent are so rapid, so transparent, that we have little conscious feel for the principles and knowledge which underlie this communicative ability.”
I know what they mean. They mean we don’t apply enough effort to really understanding how conveying or receiving meaning works. And yet it’s the most important communication mechanism we have. How confusing.
To my mind, meaning is more than words, meaning is first and foremost informed by our intentions. If we seek to give to show appreciation versus feeling better about ourselves or to check the box of having given a gift, there are three wholly different meanings at play. Meaning is also informed by context. If I tease you on our first date, without having first established some level of trust and affinity, my words are, well, mean. If I tease you twelve months later, after a friendship has been built, the exact same words are a sign of affection.
While the words we use are still the primary vehicle of meaning, they are seriously colored by the tone and manner in which we express them. Intonation, real or perceived, can turn a benign statement into an incendiary one. That’s the primary reason I never use email (or texting) to convey anything that is complex or potentially emotionally charged. It turns out the two most common forms of communication in today’s world are not so good at handling nuanced meaning. Uh oh. Not only are words misconstrued but the asynchronous nature of email and text can result in a profound inability to negotiate the exchange of meaning in order to get to the shared meaning. And the cost of festering misunderstanding between time elapsed exchanges can negate any chance of getting back to “we’re good” anytime soon.
In person meaning exchange is impacted by eye contact, by the verticality of the eyebrow arch, by everything. In my case gesticulation is my greatest asset and my greatest liability when it comes to conveying what I mean. Because it turns out that for some people my arms being raised and wildly flapping around is less a sign of emphasis and more a threat of violence. Really. So it turns out that the efficacy of the tools of conveying meaning is in part impacted by the receptivity and orientation of the recipient of what you mean. Which really means the art and science of meaning are exactly that. In order to provide the clearest meaning, we must have the clearest understanding of who we are giving that meaning to and be, dare I say, calculated in how we deliver it.
Speaking of calculations, a couple of research studies done in the 1960s came up with a sort of formula on how to think about the conveyance and receipt of meaning. Informally dubbed the 55/38/7 formula, it proposed that 55% of all communication is in body language, 38% is tone of voice, and just 7% is the actual words being spoken. So I take it back. The words we use are not the primary vehicle of meaning. We are.
The challenge, of course, is that when we engage in sharing meaning, we are typically not prepared to do so. Calculating is the furthest thing from our minds. We don’t have the words figured out and we certainly haven’t thought through how we’re going to stand or sit, where we’re going to put our hands, or which vocal timber we’re going to tap into, all based on the other person(s) receptivity to any or none of the above. It’s all random, self-centered, in the moment blurting that tends to result in a fair amount of missed or misconstrued meaning and unnecessary collateral damage.
So what can we do? Well, the first step is to acknowledge the problem and the opportunity. We should all accept that we under-invest in the recognition and appreciation of all the meaning that surrounds us, in the meaning of the transactions and conversations that inform the tenure and tracks of our lives and the meaning of the people in them. So let’s change that. It’s actually a pretty straightforward decision.
As we get better at appreciating meaning we may find motivation in getting better at conveying and receiving meaning. And with that motivation under our belts, we will begin to see that our natural tendency in the exchange of meaning is to focus on the what and the how of things. Ironically, the what and the how of something don’t tend to carry much of its meaning. It’s all in the why. The why of a gift over the what of a gift. The why of a decision. The why of a new innovation. When the conversations start and end with the why versus the what or how, the chances of meaningful meaning exchange exponentially improve.
The third step is to start working on getting better at the nuances of conveying meaning and receiving what others mean the way they mean it. This is the hard part. It requires stepping back from the fray of verbal or written exchange, from the need to just get it done, or get it out, and thinking through what exactly we mean and how we or they want it to be understood. And then we have to go into that exchange focused on the other person over ourselves, and aware that every move we make, ever murmur and twitch, will either clarify or diffuse his or her or their ability to grasp exactly what we mean. Easier said than done I know but consider the consequences. When meaning is lost, all is lost. When meaning is misunderstood, the costs are profound. When meaning is poorly conveyed or received, an opportunity is missed. Being better at meaning begins and ends with the understanding that the meaning of life is really about embracing a life full of meaning. Happy holidays.