ABCD: General Semantics

Semantics is a branch of linguistics concerned with the meaning dimension of language—the meanings of words and sentences. General Semantics also deals with meaning but in a very different way. In fact, the name “General Semantics” has proved problematic because it’s so easily confused with linguistic “semantics.” General Semantics really goes much beyond the study of meaning and encompasses a way of looking at language and a way of thinking about language and about things.
General Semantics (often abbreviated, capitalized, and referred to simply as GS) is the study among the relationships of language, thought, and behavior. It was developed by Alfred Korzybski and presented in his Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933), an extremely difficult book to read. Korzybski used his knowledge of engineering and mathematics to explain this study which made his formulations difficult to understand for those without this background. Yet, a number of prominent people, some from communication and some from the sciences as well as some popular writers, quickly saw the value in this study and, fortunately, wrote simpler explanations of Korzybski’s formulations. These included Stuart Chase’s The Power of Words, Wendell Johnson’s People in Quandaries, S. I. Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action, Irving Lee’s Language Habits in Human Affairs, Harry Weinberg’s Levels of Knowing and Existence (with whom I had the privilege of taking courses at Temple University), and J. S. Bois’ The Art of Awareness and Explorations in Awareness. And just about every book by Albert Ellis incorporates the principles of General Semantics. If you pick up any one of these books, you’ll be amazed at the insights and new perspectives they give you. Harry Maynard, one of the great popularizers of General Semantics, once told me that General Semantics gave him an enormous intellectual advantage in his field (advertising and public relations); it taught him to look at things in different ways and to see what others didn’t. I feel the same way; if I have had any intellectual advantage it was due not only to my formal education (which was excellent) but largely to my application of General Semantics thinking to communication.
Unfortunately, there were many critics who vehemently denounced this study of language without understanding the foundations of General Semantics or its values. And, as a result, the study never had the impact in the academy that it should have had. Yet, and this is the surprisingly thing, many of its formulations—which were original to General Semantics—have been incorporated into the study of communication as well as other areas. In fact, even the critics make use of these insights without knowing, perhaps, that they came from General Semantics theory.
The Institute of General Semantics (www.generalsemantics.org) notes that General Semantics can help you integrate your four worlds: (1) the world that is out there, the world as it exists in constant process, the world as science tells us it exists; (2) the world within your skin, your nervous system and senses; (3) the world of “not words,” the world you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch; and (4) the world of words, of symbols, labels, assumptions and the like.
Here are just a few of the principles of General Semantics (for more, see the Institute’s website):
• The world in which you live is constantly changing and yet your language is relatively static. If your language, the way you talk about the world and its people, is to reflect accurately this constantly changing world, then it too must change. When your evaluations remain static even as the world changes, you’re in trouble. And so General Semanticists recommend dating your statements and your evaluations: Iraq2003 is not Iraq2007 and will not be the same as Iraq2010 (the dates are better written as subscripts). And, YOUyesterday, YOUtoday, and YOUtomorrow are different in some ways and you need to take these differences into consideration when you make evaluations, whether of yourself or of others.
• The world that you perceive is not the world that is out there; what you perceive through your senses is only a small part of what is. You never see all, nor can you ever say all about anything. What you perceive (of a thing or a person) is actually an abstraction of what is; your perception is limited to what your senses pick up. Some people are very perceptive and see a great deal; others are less perceptive and see a great deal less. But, all people see only a small portion of what is. When you assume that you know all or have said all, you’re not reflecting the world that science says exists. And so General Semanticists recommend that you add an implicit or even explicit etc. at the ends of your sentences to remind yourself that there is always more to be said, more to be learned, more perspectives and viewpoints to be considered.
In teaching General Semantics, one of the activities I used [btw, I put some of these exercises in a workbook, General Semantics: Guide and Workbook, I did years ago and that is long out of print but may be available in some libraries] was to give each student a small stone and ask them to examine it as closely as they could. After a minute or so, they would put the stone down and say they were finished; they knew all they could about the stone. But, I’d persist and urge them to continue examining the stone. I did this for at least 20 minutes—that’s a long time to examine a small piece of rock. Not surprisingly, by the end of the 20 minutes, they had come to realize that they still didn’t know all that could be learned about the stone. And people are a lot more complex. Yet—and this is the crucial part—we often make judgments about people after the first few seconds and certainly within the first four minutes. One of the many problems that this creates is that this judgment (that is made on the basis of this extremely short time) will function as a filter through which further information about this person will be perceived, given meaning, and modified. And, to make matters just a little bit worse, this judgment will prove extremely resistant to change.
Some 20 years after using that exercise, btw, I ran into a former student who became an artist and within the first two minutes of our discussion he mentioned the exercise with the stone and how it taught him a unique perspective for viewing art in general and his own art work in particular.
• Because you perceive the world through your own psychological and physiological makeup, each person sees the world differently. To assume that all people see things similarly or as you do, is simply absurd and is contradicted by everyday experience. This principle is especially important in relationship communication where, often at least, couples just don’t understand why and often resent it when the other person sees things differently. But, such differences are inevitable and the task in relationship communication is to appreciate, understand, and empathize with the (always different and always changing) perceptions of your partner or friend or family member. Without recognizing this, communication becomes virtually impossible.
• The words you use to describe the world are not the world; the map is not the territory, the word is not the thing. As Weinberg put it, “Whatever you say it is, it isn’t.” The word (what you say) is different from the thing (what science says is “out there”). At the extreme, you see this confusion of words and things in the allergic person who sneezes at the sight of paper flowers. More commonly it can be seen when people assume that what they call themselves or what others call them (slow, nerdy, passionate, disorganized) is what they are. What you are called and what you are, are two entirely different things. This doesn’t mean that the way in which something is talked about doesn’t influence perceptions; it certainly does. But, it does so through the person—as I. A. Richards’ triangle of meaning [kind of] illustrates. You are the one who gives meaning and credence to the words you use to describe yourself or to the words that others use to describe you.
• Everything is unique; there are no two things that are exactly alike—even snowflakes are different from each other. When things are covered by the same label, however, many assume that they are therefore similar or even identical. But, they aren’t. Each Iraqi, American, Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Canadian—and we could continue indefinitely—is unique. The fact that you have general labels that can be used to refer to the group does not mean that the members of that group are the same. As you know from members of your own groups—whatever they may be—no one is identical to you. You know you’re unique but sometimes (perhaps) may forget that every other person is also unique and different from any others—even those covered by the same label. And so, General Semanticists make use of the index (which, like the date, is best written as a subscript): politician1 is not politician2, professor1is not professor2, and on and on. This tendency to ignore differences among those covered by the same label is at the heart of the process of stereotyping (an earlier ABCD word, posted 10/4/07). If you recognize the uniqueness of each person or each idea, it would be impossible to stereotype. As General Semanticists are fond of saying, “the more you discriminate among, the less you discriminate against.”
This emphasis on uniqueness does not deny that many people share many qualities and it is these qualities that we try to capture when we talk about gender and cultural differences. So, while every man is different from every other man, men seem to have certain qualities in common. Similarly, every women is different from every other woman but women also seem to have certain qualities in common. As a result, we can talk about male-female differences (and, of course, similarities). And we use this same assumption when we talk about such cultural differences as individualism and collectivism, high and low power distance cultures, and high and low tolerance for ambiguity. Members of certain cultures have gross similarities which we can capture with such terms as individualism and collectivism but within the group of individualists, for example, there are variations and differences. And the same is true for all cultural labeling. So, we need to keep in mind both similarities and differences—especially when talking about gender and culture. Overemphasizing one and ignoring the other is likely to lead to a variety of misevaluations and errors of judgment.
• Language makes it easy for you to talk in extremes: black and white, good and evil, moral and immoral. As a result, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of people, things, and ideas are between these extremes. This tendency to polarize, as you can imagine, can create problems, pitting us against them, the good against the bad.
One of the exercises I use--and it’s in most of my books—is to ask students to identify the opposites of such words as good, birth, up, healthy, sane, and rich. Of course, bad, death, down, ill (or unhealthy), insane, and poor come quickly to mind. And there is great similarity in the students’ responses. Now, however, try to identify the middle area—the area between good and bad, birth and death, healthy and unhealthy, sane and insane, and rich and poor. This takes a lot more thought; it will actually take you a longer time to identify the middle terms than it took you to identify the opposites. And, if you do this with other people, you’ll likely see that there are more differences in the responses of middle terms than in the responses of opposites. This is just a simple demonstration to increase awareness that it’s easier to think and talk in terms of opposites than to think and talk about the middle. And yet, the vast majority of people are not at the extremes; they’re between the extremes. The implication is simple; we need to be careful when using opposites and we need to develop the ability to talk about the middle.
There’s actually a lot more to be said about General Semantics and I hope to do that in subsequent posts. For now, if you want to learn more about General Semantics pick up one of the books mentioned here, search the Internet, or (and I think this is the best first step) visit the Institute of General Semantics website (www.generalsemantics.org).


NCA Convention

Just returned from Chicago, from the 93rd annual NCA convention. The best thing about conventions is to meet old colleagues and make new ones. But, some of the programs were very interesting; they always rejuvenate me.
I hear the number of attendees was somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,200 which is terrific. If you were not able to attend, you can still get a CD containing many of the papers (for $25) by going to the NCA Store at http://www.NCAStore.com/ .
If any NCA officers are listening here, please, please, please don’t ever schedule programs at 2 different hotels that are a mile apart (maybe less but not a comfortable walk). [Programs were mainly at the Hilton but a good number were at the Palmer House.] Most people I talked to, didn’t even look at the programs at the Palmer House; it was just too much of a chore to get there and then get back to the Hilton for the next session.
My second plea would be to bring back the free coffee in the exhibition area. It brings people in and makes it easier to find long-lost colleagues, talk with students, and just take a convenient break from the programs.
Last, NCA must have a table in the exhibition hall or at least near by. Apparently NCA sold all the spaces available in the exhibit hall and so didn’t have a table of its own. I think most people want to be able to review the various [and excellent] NCA publications and purchase the disk of the programs while we’re at the convention, as we were able to do in the past. On the other hand, the fact that NCA was able to sell all the available spaces is a good sign that publishers are very, very interested in communication as a discipline. But, still, NCA needs its own table or booth.
Well, one more point. Conventions are funny things. Colleges normally pay for people to attend if they deliver a paper, so there is pressure to accept as many papers as possible to increase attendance. At the same time, the various divisions of NCA are each given a number of programs to fill and even if they don’t receive great papers, they’re still likely to fill the slots. Together, these two factors (and maybe others) contribute to the acceptance of papers that perhaps are too early in their development to command an audience. Many, many, many papers, of course, were excellent; some were even already accepted for publication in some of our best journals. But, it’s time for greater quality control to be instituted by divisions and caucuses as well as by NCA.

ABCD: Metacommunication

The prefix meta- can mean a variety of things but as used in communication, philosophy, and psychology it’s meaning is best translated as about. Thus, metacommunication is communication about communication, metalanguage is language about language, and metamessage is a message about a message.
Look at it this way. You can communicate about the world—about the desk you’re sitting at, the computer you’re using, or the passage you’re reading right now. We refer to this as object communication; you’re talking about objects. And the language you’re using is called an object language. But notice that you’re not limited to talking about objects; you can also talk about your talk; you can communicate about your communication. And this is referred to as metacommunication. In the same way, you can use language (i.e., metalanguage) to talk about language (i.e., object language). And you can talk about your messages with metamessages.
The distinction between object communication and metacommunication is not merely academic; it’s extremely practical and recognizing the difference between these two forms of communication is essential in untangling lots of conflicts and understanding a wide variety of interpersonal communication interactions.
Actually, you use this distinction every day, perhaps without realizing it. For example, when you send someone an e-mail with a seemingly sarcastic comment and then put a smiley at the end, the smiley communicates about your communication; it says something like “this message is not to be taken literally; I’m trying to be humorous.” The smiley is a metamessage; it’s a message about a message. When you say, in preface to some comment, “I’m not sure about this but. . .” you’re communicating a message about a message; you’re commenting on the message and asking that it be understood with the qualification that you may be wrong. When you conclude a comment with “I’m only kidding” you’re metacommunicating; you’re communicating about the communication.
In relationship communication you often talk in metalanguage and say things like, “we really need to talk about the way we communicate when we’re out with company” or “you’re too critical” or “I love when you tell me how much you love me.” In fact, it might be argued that relationship or couples therapy is largely (though not entirely) a process of exploring your communication patterns through metacommunication, through talking about the way you talk to and about each other.
And, of course, you can use nonverbal messages to metacommunicate. You can wink at someone to indicate that you’re only kidding, look longingly into another eyes when you say “I love you” to show that you really mean it, or sneer after saying “Yeah, that was great,” with the sneer contradicting the literal meaning of the verbal message.
In a similar way, meta- can prefix a large number of terms to distinguish them from their object counterparts. Thus, you can have, say, a theory about the way communication works or about first encounters or about persuasion but you can also have a metatheory, a theory about theories. For example, when you consider the qualities that a theory must have (say, it must have clearly defined terms and be capable of being disproven), these are metatheoretical statements; they are statements about theories and not about the way communication works or about first encounters or about persuasion; they are about theories as theories.
Like all your communication, your metacommunication may be used both effectively and ineffectively. Generally, it’s helpful to analyze your talking patterns and the ways in which you and your partner or management and workers, say, relate to each other. This is good; this is the effective use of metacommunication and can often lead to significant improvements in your own relationships. But, when you substitute talking about your communication for talking about a problem, you’re likely to create more problems than you had originally. For example, let’s say you’re part of a couple discussing your child’s getting into trouble with the police. As long as the conversation is focused on the child and the trouble with the police, it seems you’re addressing the problem at hand. But, there is also a tendency to substitute talk about the talk for talk about the problem. Let’s say one person says “You’re just an uncaring parent.” Then the other person focuses on being called “uncaring” and the conversation now veers off into whether “uncaring” is justified and may entail a list of all the actions that demonstrated a great deal of caring. The conversation (and soon-to-be argument) is now between the parents and their view of each other. When this type of talk becomes the sole or main topic of conversation, you’re into what is called a metacommunication spiral, with your talk focusing more and more on the ways you talk and less and less on the problem of the child.
So, the lessons to be learned from metacommunication are two fold: (1) use metacommunication to improve your interpersonal and relationship communication—to preface important messages or to analyze and ultimately improve relationship communication, for example, and (2) avoid metacommunication when it substitutes for addressing an immediate problem.


ABCD: Phatic Communion

Phatic communion (often relabeled phatic communication or phatic speech) refers to a form of relationship communication (as opposed to content communication) which opens the channels of communication. Its purpose is to communicate openness for communication, rather than, about content, say finances, the last movie you saw, or anything external to the relationship between you and the other person. It’s a kind of preface to the main business to be discussed. It’s the small talk that precedes the big talk.
In terms of content, phatic communion is trivial—How are you? What’s new? Where you been?—but in terms of relationships, it’s extremely important; it assures us that the normal social rules for communicating are operating here and that the two individuals want to communicate with each other. It says, the channels of communication are open, let’s talk.
Most often we think of phatic communion as verbal but it may also be communicated with nonverbal gestures (a warm handshake or a wave), facial expressions (a smile or a worrisome expression), and tone of voice.
One of the many skills of interpersonal communication is to recognize the importance of phatic communion, use it appropriately, and recognize the break point between phatic communion and the next stage in the conversation process. Without phatic communion, people would just begin with the “big” talk without even saying “hello” or “good seeing you again” which would clearly communicate that something is wrong, that, for some reason, the normal rules of conversation are not being followed.
People who answer the common phatic message, “How are you?” with an extended explanation of their recent illness rather than a simple “hello” are failing to see that “How are you?” is—usually at least—a phatic message that means hello and not an invitation to talk about your health. On the other hand, if you were in the hospital and a visitor said “How are you?” this message would probably not be phatic but would more likely be a request for information about your health.
Equally important is to recognize when these preliminaries, these phatic messages, have served their purpose and that it’s now time to move on to the business a hand. You see violations of this at company meetings where members continue to exchange phatic messages even though the preliminaries are over and that the meeting proper should begin.
Harry Weinberg, in his Levels of Knowing and Existence: Studies in General Semantics (Harper & Brothers, 1959) gives a good example to illustrate the importance of recognizing when communication is phatic:

If you are fixing a flat tire on a hot day and a passerby asks, “Got a flat?” he [or she] is asking you to be friendly. If you take his [or her] words literally, you are likely to become angry and say, “Any damn fool can see I have.”

Unlike most contemporary Americans who expect phatic communion to preface more extended and purposeful communication, the “plain speech” of early Quakers eliminated much phatic talk such as greetings or expressions of politeness; their aim was to use speech only when it served a specific useful function. For more on this take a look at Richard Bauman’s “Let your words be few: Symbolism of speaking and silence among seventeenth-century Quakers,” in L. Monaghan & J. E. Goodman, eds., A Cultural Approach to Interpersonal Communication: Essential Readings (Blackwell, 2007), pp. 63-76. Of course, your communication instructor (and I) would argue that such phatic messages do communicate a useful function and that is to open the channels of communication, to say that normal communication rules operate here, and that I want to communicate.
The term phatic communion was originally coined by cultural anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in his article, “The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages,” which was published as an appendix to the highly influential Meaning of Meaning by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards (in which Richards explained his famous “triangle of meaning”) and published in 1923 (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich). The term “communion” was used to convey the meaning of sharing, participating together, and commonality but because the term is also used in a religious context, writers probably felt more comfortable saying “phatic communication” or “phatic speech” and thus avoid the ambiguity that the term “communion” might create. All terms (phatic communion, phatic communication, phatic speech) convey similar meaning; all refer to the same type of communication.


Communication Apprehension

Take a look at this article in the New York Time Education Section--it's about shyness, reticence, communication apprehension and the efforts made to deal with it in communication classrooms. Citing McCroskey, Daly, and others in communication, the writer explains how important it is for students and instructors to deal with this issue. Highlighted are the courses at Wyoming and Penn State that provide models for dealing with these "problems."


ABCD: Jargon, Argot, Slang, and Taboo

As you no doubt have already discovered, there is not one but a variety of languages. Here I’d like to distinguish just four of these; others need to follow.

Jargon has two meanings. First and in popular usage, jargon refers to language that is overly complex or difficult for people to understand. As such it has a negative connotation; it’s language that should be avoided if your aim is clear and meaningful communication. If, on the other hand, your aim is to confuse or to intimidate jargon often serves well.
A second meaning of jargon, however, is the technical language of a profession which often is difficult or impossible for outsiders to understand. Psychologists, mathematicians, engineers, financial experts, and, of course, communication theorists and researchers have their own professional language (i.e., jargon).
So, while jargon enables members of the same profession to communicate more easily and more precisely with each other (as noted in the introduction to these ABCDs), jargon also prevents meaningful communication between those who are and those who are not members of the profession. The language of the real estate deed or the insurance policy is jargon-filled. The aim, quite often, is to put the non-professional at a disadvantage for not knowing the technical language. And unfortunately many people are reluctant to seek clarification—no one wants to appear ignorant—which, all too often, just results in jargon being added to the original jargon. It’s often helpful to remember that it’s the jargon-user’s obligation to make things clear to the non-professional and that you have the right to have the deed or policy explained in language that you can understand.
When used to increase accuracy among professionals, jargon serves a useful communication purpose; when used to confuse or confound the non-professional it is an unethical use of language and communication.

Argot (which comes from the French meaning slang) is very much like jargon except that instead of being the language of a professional class, it is (usually at least) the language of a criminal class. The specialized language of thieves, confidence hucksters, and prisoners would be considered argot. Like jargon, argot is understood only by members of the group. When terms become more widely known, the terms pass from true argot into slang. Cant is another word for argot; the word cant seems to be used more in England and argot more in the United States.

Slang is nonstandard language; it is overly casual language that would not be considered quite proper in “polite society”. “Buck” for dollar, “copper” or police officer, or “screw” for sexual intercourse are common examples. Slang is language that is widely known—people don’t have trouble understanding slang terms as they do jargon or argot—but only used in those informal situations where it doesn’t mark you as being ignorant or ill-mannered or impolite. When used in say public speaking situations, the result is often a startled reaction; the slang word or phrase will seem inappropriate and will in some way lower the level of the speech.

Taboo denotes something forbidden and may refer to just about anything that a social group might disapprove of—wearing certain colors to a wedding or funeral, eating certain foods, engaging in certain behaviors such as incest, or engaging in normally private activities in public. Applied to language, taboo refers to words (or nonverbal behaviors) or topics that would be considered coarse or inappropriate in social discourse. Profanity—that is, words your society would consider profane—is a good example of language taboo as are obscene gestures. Similarly, topics dealing with sexual fantasies, certain bodily functions, or various diseases or death would be considered taboo in many situations.
What is or isn’t taboo depends on the specific social group communicating. A term used regularly and without any special notice on the ball field may be regarded as taboo if said in a college classroom or when talking with people in authority. Similarly, what is considered a taboo topic will vary with the situation. Discussing your sexual fantasies in your course in Human Sexuality or with a therapist might be considered perfectly acceptable. Discussing these same fantasies with, say, pre-teens or with your grandparents would likely be considered socially inappropriate (that is, taboo).
As you can imagine, violating taboos can be very easy in intercultural situations since you really don’t know what is considered taboo in a culture with which you’re not familiar. For example, if you were an American at dinner at a Mexican house, you’d probably realize that the topic of illegal aliens is not your best conversation topic. But, not many people would realize that using a finger to call someone, giving an unwrapped gift or giving any gift on a first meeting or giving a clock as a gift, or not sending flowers or candy to a host would be taboo somewhere in the world. If you want to explore this topic in more detail take a look at Roger E. Axtell’s books, especially Do’s and Taboos Around the World (Wiley, 1993) and Gestures: The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World (Wiley, 1997). Although a bit dated, the material is still valid and, most important, will demonstrate the wide variety of and variations in taboos around the world.
Generally, as the formality of a situation increases, what is considered taboo also increases; the greater the formality, the more that is taboo. For example, terms that you use regularly in conversation with friends might well be considered taboo is used in a public speaking or job interview situation.