I’ve been thinking about Truth and communication and how people think about these things. I don’t have any real "solutions" or even a point, but I wanted to share my thoughts.
Of course much of this line of thinking comes from the current political season in America. The political way of spinning the Truth is well known to anyone who pays attention. The candidate or…spokesperson memorizes a set of lines (memes, really), and when asked a question that even tangentially relates to one of those lines, they regurgitate it. They do this because 1) constant repetition gets results, and 2) they only have a short amount of television time to express what they want people to hear.
This can be infuriating. When seeking the truth, people will ask, "What are you going to do about the economy?" The canned response is, "This campaign pays attention to the economy, and wants to work with Congress and business interests to insure good jobs for everyone, unlike my rivals."
Of course, that’s not the answer, and the Truth-seeker doesn’t get what she came for. And if you were sitting down as peers to the candidate, you could take as much time as necessary to repeat the question, demand a better answer, and do fact-checking. But that’s not how the system works. On TV, the candidates know their hosts are constrained by 30 or 60-minute show lengths, other guests, other questions that need asking, and other topics imposed from above. So the candidate can say whatever they want, safely assuming they will escape any real grilling or analysis.
In real American culture, if you talked like a politician, people who interacted with you on a daily basis would learn to distrust you and discount what you say.
The Japanese way of speaking is fascinating, because initially it sounds like every Japanese person is a politician. Nobody answers questions directly. Q: "How were you able to win the race?" A "Everyone was very strong." Q: "Will you go buy pizza for dinner?" A "I am hungry."
To American ears, this kind of talk is almost nonsensical, but the Japanese are not all politicians. They ARE answering the questions, but through a cultural filter. The Japanese have a single common history filled with lessons about how Japanese people SHOULD act, so often the Japanese don’t need to say things directly. Instead they say part of what needs to be said, and let common culture and assumptions fill in the rest.
To an outsider who doesn’t have the benefit of growing up in the common culture, this can be very confusing. In fact, during WW2, American code-breakers found that just knowing the Japanese language wasn’t enough. They needed actual Japan-born people to decipher and understand what the Japanese military was saying.
"Darmok" is an episode of the old Star Trek: Next Generation TV show. In the episode the Enterprise encounters a culture that speaks completely metaphorically. The culture has a rich shared history and instead of saying, "I think you’re wrong", the people state the name of a historical figure who was wrong.
Married people have this, too. Living closely for years lets a couple build up a common, deep frame of reference, which is often used to communicate. As my old friend Mike said once, "Married people have a look-up table of experience", and if a complex concept is already expressed in the table, they can simply reference the proper row of the table, not state the contents of the table.
Another such place for "short-hand" or "look-up table" communication lies in body language. Every one of us grows up studying other human beings. It’s hard to miss a slumped shoulder or a shuffle, much less a frown or smile. Body language is very deep, and some people spend a lot of time and energy learning to communicate in it, but most of us just accept it without really paying attention.
In the opposite direction, we can also mis-communicate by being too direct. The Chinese (and other cultures) are known for being able to speak frankly about bodies and faces without considering that they might hurt feelings. They can walk right up to you and say, "Why are you so fat? Why don’t you go on a diet?"
An American might smack you if you did that, because the American look-up table references feelings of shame, disapproval, gluttony, and offense. for those questions, the Chinese look-up table doesn’t.
I had a similar experience with an Israeli guy who ran a model shop. When I applied for a job, he said, "Okay, but you have to get a physical exam, so we know there’s no cancer hiding under all that fat." I think this is a good example of what I’m talking about, but as it turns out the guy WAS a giant asshole.
An engineer is offended by all this business of cultural filters and not saying exactly what you mean. To him, truth is truth, false is false, and shades of gray are obnoxious. Young engineers rail against "office politics" and lack of clarity in the workplace. Old engineers have learned to accept what they cannot change, but still agree that the world would be a better place if everyone said what they meant, never lied, and lived in a meritocracy. And had a pony. 🙂
Curiously, game developers lie all the time, in a way. The supposedly solid objects we display in a 3D game are really quite hollow. Everything on the screen is made of triangles. A pumpkin or boulder is made up of a "skin" of cleverly arranged triangles. In the game’s internal representation, they are hollow inside. Anyone who’s played more than two 3D games will have seen a character put his hand through a wall, or seen through a gap in the triangle "skin" of a bridge.
This can really break immersion in the game, and developers are constantly working to minimize these errors, but since everything is hollow, it’s difficult. Someday computers will be powerful enough to model boulders and pumpkins atom-by-atom, and maybe then we’ll fix this "lie" once and for all. Perhaps someone has already created such a world. Perhaps we’re all living in it right now! (cue spooky music!) wheee-ooooo!!! 🙂
Truth is after all a moving target
Hairs to split,
And pieces that don’t fit
How can anybody be enlightened?
Truth is after all so poorly lit.
~Neil Peart, Turn the Page