Communicating Through Social Norms

by Johnny

Communication is one of the things that humans are incredibly savvy at. At least, humans seem to be the only ones capable of communicating the most complex ideas and representations.

We opened up possibilities for skyscrapers, video games and so on by communicating complex ideas to other people. The feat of our achievements would be unthinkable if not for the possibility of efficient and effective ways to communicate.

Norms of communication are vital to even the most trivial tasks of our day. For instance, if you wanted to make a new dish, you might want to read a recipe. It requires the skill to read, let’s say, English and maybe some short hands, such as “tsp”.

Grocery shopping is impossible without knowing the norms on exchanging information about what you want and how much things cost; not being familiar with these norms slow down your grocery shopping.

One time, I was at a restaurant in Hawaii placing my order. I told the cashier I wanted a pop, and she looked confused so I had to change my choice of word and say soda instead.

Successful communication seems awfully dependent upon social norms:

  • Americans prefer the imperial system of measurement while most of the world prefers the metric system.
  • Clothing sizes vary from Northern China to Southern China.
  • When describing things, literary authors use more adjectives than scientists.
  • Modern German recommends the passive tone, while modern English practically frowns on it.
  • There is a difference between casual language and professional language.

So if communication is dependent on social norms or customs, can we change the rules or norms of conduct to make communication more efficient and effective?

Actually, we already do this:

  • A customer service representative is trained to talk and listen in a specific way that registers a list problems or complaints about some product
  • A medical doctor is trained to talk and listen in such a way that registers a list of symptoms.
  • My personal favorite: academics are trained to frequently use terms with specific, well-defined meanings. How convenient! This practice of agreeing to use terms that are chewed over and closely examined avoid so much confusion and unnecessary disagreements.

To me, academia stands out among all frontier pursuits of truth, meaning and value are portrayed precisely because of its tempered norms of communication.

There is rarely any name calling at the end of a poorly handled debate; there is no yelling and little physical confrontation. There is, however, vanity and meaningless rivalry.

But if academia gave us democracy, knowledge of the stars, and insight into the human heart, in all its imperfect, ever-growing infancy, I sit back and watch in awe of future augmentations of human communication and the wonders it may bring.

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