I’ve been playing for some time with a piece of my writing about the power of language. Anyone who has ever explored George Orwell’s writings, including, but not limited to his classic novel 1984, has some appreciation for the power language has to shape reality, to determine outcomes and to define social interactions. It is the basis not only for how we think about reality, but more simply, language facilitates human communication. In thinking about this piece, and observing the everyday interactions of my friends and peers, I’ve become increasingly amazed and intrigued by the amount of communication that occurs on an entirely nonverbal level. It amazes me how much we can say with our tone, with a look, or a raised eyebrow (a particular favorite of mine), with our actions, a smile or a gesture. A physical touch, a certain melody, or a certain image can garner intense emotional reactions and express things that one just can’t capture in words.
But there is a drawback, a weakness, to these wordless levels of communication that can express so much…they are ambiguous. My reaction to a certain melody may be far different than Maia’s (and often is– we have very different tastes in music), and we may read entirely different meanings into the tune. My raised eyebrow might indicate the skepticism with which I approach the subject of Philosophy, the skepticism with which I approach conversations with Ziek, or my desire to get into his pants. Even if the arch of my eyebrow can communicate my intended skepticism more effectively than words, this uncertainty has the potential to cause much confusion, awkwardness — or just general hilarity.
Yet we continually resort to these types of communication. Perhaps we do so in spite of their ambiguity, and resort to using language to clarify our meaning should any awkwardness arise. But perhaps we use these potentially dangerous methods precisely because of their ambiguity. We can say with a look, with a smile, with a song, what we could never bring ourselves to express in words, because without words there is the possibility that, if the person to whom we are “talking” “hears” something they don’t like, we can easily deny all knowledge, and dismiss it as a misunderstanding. Not always possible with language.
So I guess my question is, if we have come to rely on non-verbal communication so much, what are we so afraid to say?
Or perhaps more importantly, why are we so afraid to say it?