RESTON, VA, December 30, 2011 — A number of months ago, I launched a Washington Times Communities column devoted to dealing with grief—a tough topic to deal with in the abstract and an even tougher one to deal with when you’re actually confronting it.
Deep grief over the loss of a loved one, family member, or close friend doesn’t just disappear. Over time, it manifests differently in different people. It’s a chameleon, a chimera—bodiless, yet substantial and ever changing. As I wrote about grief throughout 2011, I found myself obliged to maintain a strangely steady relationship with grief, while helping readers move on. Eventually, I reached a limit on dealing with grief exclusively and suspended my column for a while.
I eventually concluded it was time to broaden out. People who can’t communicate comfortably under ordinary circumstances are unlikely to undergo a magical transformation into fluency in response to grief. They’re even less like to be able to acquire another elusive skill at a moment’s notice: the ability to communicate soul-to-soul empathy and compassion.
Gradually, it occurred to me that it made more sense to broaden my topic area and consider a much wider range of communications issues and experiences.
It was around this time that Apple’s superstar CEO Steve Jobs breathed his last.
Steve Jobs’ Final Moment of Eloquence
When Steve Jobs passed away, there was considerable discussion among the Apple faithful and the media in general when his very last words were revealed: “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.” As the story goes, he uttered them while looking not at his family but past them, almost as if staring at some kind of apparition, although we can only imagine what.
The last time I checked, Jobs’ last words and associated commentary had generated over two million hits on Google. In the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed pages, columnist Peggy Noonan observed that “When words leave people silent and thinking they are powerful words.” But was he communicating? Yes.
But, as he looked past his family while speaking those words, he seemed to see something they did not before uttering those final six words. He was speaking to what he saw. But he was also communicating, as best he could, whatever he saw to those around him. Why did he speak to them in that last moment? For that matter, why do we really communicate with each other?
Communication: No Help from the Usual Suspects
When one embarks on a quest to explore words, the first stop is usually the dictionary. Another stop is to consult the experts.
From the outset, the dictionary proved no real help to me, especially with regard to understanding why Steve Jobs’ final words affected people so profoundly. From the Oxford English Dictionary of United States English:
com·mu·ni·ca·tion/kəˌmyo͞oniˈkāSHən/ Noun. 1. The imparting or exchanging of information or news. 2. A letter or message containing such information or news.
No help. “Oh wow,” as best I can tell, has been in use from the earliest days of hippiedom, an era with which Jobs was well familiar. It was the only way that many flower children—or anyone else for that matter—could communicate what they were seeing or experiencing after a dalliance with a controlled substance.
The expression, at that time at least, meant everything and nothing. The speaker knew what it meant. The auditors could only understand that it addressed something outside of their real world experience and appreciate it in that way. It was an exchange of information for sure, but no one could quite know what the information was.
Moving on to the academic world, I discovered that communication is more complicated than the average person might think—although, as in much of academia these days, professors are frequently guilty of overthinking the process as well. Various academic communication theories espouse various “levels” of communication. There are also several types of communication, and multiple methods of communication.
Those who specialize in communication talk about verbal, nonverbal, formal, informal, and that ever-popular gold ring: effective communication. The deep thinkers also spin theories about what they term factual, gut-level, peak, evaluative, phatic, and platonic communication.
Beyond these essentials, they promulgate a mishmash of other terms and definitions as well, often degenerating into theoretical academic-speak—the kind of verbiage that makes them a laughingstock to everyone outside of their profession.
(And God help you if you don’t pair the correct number of levels, types, and methods of communication with their corresponding communication theoreticians. You’ll be swiftly—and snarkily—corrected.)
Modern communication about communication makes an academic libertarian nostalgic for the trivium—rhetoric, grammar, and logic—the three required subjects before you were allowed to approach arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy back in the day. In those times, knowing how to read was more mysterious and inaccessible than knowing how to program is today.
Granted, communication is complicated. Even communication between non-humans is complicated (see David Attenborough’s discussion of birds’ ability to communicate in his video series, The Life of Birds).
But even without the self-awareness available to humans, creatures that communicate with each other have attitude, intent, purpose. What does the other want or need? Do I care, or am I even able? What do I want? Does the other agree or not, or does it even matter?
Basic Components of Human Communication: What? Why? How?
People communicate facts and feelings as well as permutations of those, such as opinions and beliefs, in varying yet unquantifiable ratios. That’s what we get when we communicate: facts and feelings, much of the time in no particular order. How we communicate them to others is up to us.
Fact and feeling are communicated for various purposes and by multiple means. Methods of communication include billboards, books, broadsides, broadcasts, circulars, dispatches, cable media, E-mail, electronic mail, facsimiles, faxes, letters, magazines, memorandums, newspapers, notes, picture post cards, post cards—well, you get the picture.
But why do we communicate facts and feeling in so many ways?
We communicate to make observations, offer knowledge, engage in small talk. We network and we schmooze. We report facts, show each other pictures of our children, and exchange biographical information and jokes. We communicate to share feelings and facts we already know, but also query others to learn more. We try to reinforce or change attitudes, produce action, and to persuade others, which can include everything from selling washing machines to issuing commands.
We can also communicate evaluatively by offering opinions, ideas and judgments. We dole out descriptive, provisional, and responsible expressions. We communicate to establish rapport, to break the ice, to start and to end conversations. We hug, kiss, air kiss, salute, shake hands, bow, smile, make eye contact, face one another, look askance.
We report facts and share ideas, data, and information. We express ideas and judgments. We communicate sadness, joy, wonder, anger, frustration, and amazement. Once in a long while we may enjoy completely fulfilling emotional and personal communication. Nothing is held back.
And somehow we manage to navigate the good ship Communication through the sometimes treacherous channels, passages, and shoals of our lives, each of us serving as our own Columbus, in possession of tools, equipment, instruments, and crews that often, paradoxically, are less refined than were his.
Back to Steve Jobs
Here’s what Steve Jobs didn’t have during his final moments of communication:
- No listeners who saw what he saw, felt what he felt, and knew exactly how to respond.
- No relevant dictionary definitions, academic theories, levels, types, or methods of communication to fully explain the moment.
- No ability to communicate facts as he saw them.
But here’s what Steve Jobs did possess at the time of his final communication:
- A message, and loving listeners to receive it.
The lesson: Grief is but one kind of communication. There are many more and we need to understand and employ them for the benefit of others as well as ourselves. We live in a complicated time. But, sadly, neither academics, politicians, nor opinion leaders are doing a very good job of helping us navigate through a difficult era and into a more promising future that we might not even recognize when it arrives.
Looks like it’s our turn to tackle this job. Let’s get going.
Frances Ponick’s book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available in paperback from the author and is now available atAmazon.com. She coaches written and verbal communications and is the writer’s block expert atAllExperts. Feel free to ask questions there, or connect with Frances at Twitter,Facebook, and/orLinkedIn. Read more about “Stages of Grief” in the Washington Times Communities.
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