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Effectiveness of languages to accurately and fully communicate meaning and significance and social capital Part of 2022 report "Exploring the limits of social capital"

The final theme emerging from my analysis was the effectiveness of languages to accurately and fully communicate meaning and significance, which is essential for developing shared understandings. Shared understandings are fundamental to the nature of social capital and are created and recreated through interaction and communication. Language allows us to communicate our thoughts, ideas, experiences, and desires with others. Communication is an essential part of social connection because relationships cannot be made and maintained without it (Jamieson and Terrion 2016). However, language is rather ineffective at accurately and fully communicating the complexity of human experience. We are only able to encode a small part of the information we have available, and the accuracy of the decoding by the recipient relies on shared understandings. Our linguistic utterances are sparse (Boroditsky 2009), requiring interaction over protracted time periods to effectively bridge the divide between individual consciousnesses. Bridging the divide between individuals and creating shared understandings is essential for interaction and exchange. For interaction to be effective, there must be common ground; a background consensus of what are the relevant facts in a situation and what are legitimate courses of action (Sitton 2003: p63). Without shared understandings, there are barriers to effective communication and difficulty finding meaning in others’ actions. There is uncertainty about how others will act in a given situation and a tendency for individuals to employ defensive strategies that obstruct social interaction and exchange.

Even language is a shared understanding. Both participants must understand the sense of words and phrases and have a sufficient understanding of context to derive meaning and significance. Have you been in a situation where someone is speaking the same language, but the other person’s life situation and cultural context are so different to your own that it is difficult to find meaning in words? This is an extreme example, even in similar cultural contexts, often the subtle meaning of individual words can be very different between individuals. For example, I was speaking with a friend and used the word suspicion, which he understood to be an undesirable negative condition. What I actually meant was more like a healthy suspicion that is required for accountability. This highlights how specific words, even when used in a sentence to place them in context, can carry very different interpretations depending on one’s lifeworld.

Between people who know each other well, words carry meaning beyond their specific definitional meaning. For example, when my colleague knocks on my office door and says, “I’m going to get a coffee” I understand that this is an invitation to go to the local café where he will seek advice on his latest work-related challenge. He does not even need to use a questioning inflection, and he does not need to provide any other details. Our shared understandings allow me to find meaning from this simple statement. Where close relationships exist, much more detailed meaning tends to be conveyed. I may understand his need for conversation, the nature of his current emotions, likely events that occurred prior to the interaction, and much more that is difficult to fully communicate here. These shared understandings are developed mostly in interpersonal relationships but grounded in cultural understandings that are widely shared in a group or society. Shared understandings are reached by spending time with others. Through observation, interaction, and exchange. If my colleague had said the same thing to me on the day we met, I might have been confused about his meaning. Was it an invitation to go with him, or was he informing me he was going to be out of the office?

The everyday language of a social grouping can blur meaning because the same words are attributed different meanings in different contexts. The following quote is an example of the same phrase having starkly different meanings in different contexts that would be confusing for anyone outside of the social setting.

“Forget about it is like if you agree with someone, you know, like Raquel Welch is one great piece of ass, forget about it. But then, if you disagree, like a Lincoln is better than a Cadillac? Forget about it! you know? But then, it’s also like if something’s the greatest thing in the world, like mingia those peppers, forget about it. But it’s also like saying Go to hell! too. Like, you know, like “Hey Paulie, you got a one-inch pecker?” and Paulie says “Forget about it!” Sometimes it just means forget about it.” Film Donnie Brasco 1997

Each person constructs their reality based on their experiences. Even the experiences that individuals share are experienced differently based on each person’s background context. The bridge between these separate and distinct realities is communication. The extent to which we want/care to understand others, to which we assume their reality is much the same as our own. Relative to the complexity of our reality, we are only capable of transmitting a small amount of information, some of this information will be received, and it may or may not be correctly interpreted by others. This makes communication quite ineffective at bridging individuals’ realities. In an attempt to find meaning in our experiences, we construct our reality based on limited information and understanding and within the context of our lifeworld. Linguistic processes create and structure our reality according to pre-established patterns. We can only understand our experiences within the context of our existing understandings, and when we experience things that we have no foundation to understand, we feel confused, lost, scared, or uncertain.

From the above discussion, it is clear that humans are not able to fully and accurately communicate meaning and significance, and this limits the ability to reach shared understandings that are fundamental to the existence of social capital. I should acknowledge that it is naïve to suggest we know all there is to know about the human brain and how we communicate. For example, shin-denshin is a Japanese term for a form of interpersonal communication through unspoken mutual understanding. There may be some form of collective consciousness and sharing of information or understanding between individuals that do not rely on language; however, this is currently beyond the purview of science.

Citing this article

This report was prepared for the Institute for Social Capital. You should reference this work as:

Claridge, T., 2022. Exploring the limits of social capital: Can social capital be continually improved or is there a maximum?. Report, Institute for Social Capital, Dunedin, New Zealand.

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