In Praise of Ineffectiveness - Literature's View on 160 Characters

What is good communication?

What things should remain unsaid?

What is the difference between support online and offline?

What creates a sense of community between groups?

What are the tangible medical outcomes of communal support?

In August, the 160 Characters project workshop was held in London. The project is an innovative model for analysing text message support data using a ‘six voices’ framework; combining insights from medical science, literature, socio-cultural, implementation, technology and participatory. Experts from the ‘six voices’ framework analysed the text messages shared between the participants. The workshop created intense debate on what is good communication and how does each discipline measure successful interaction in the lives of people living with HIV. In the workshop, it became clear the echoes between disciplines; voices re-shaped and reiterated ideas expressed by other disciplines, yet each new formulation brought rich divergences in understanding the data, its limitations, and the future for better implementation of the technology.

Following the success of this dialogue, we have collected a series of blog posts from each of the six voices. This will provide an insight into the findings of the workshop, as well as foregrounding the potential of each discipline for thinking through the key questions of what is good communication, how can technology be used to create supportive communication and can this be leveraged to help improve the lives of people living with HIV.

For the first instalment, Professor Susanne Kord explores effective communication from a literary perspective and the importance of imagination for understanding and connection.

'In praise of effectiveness' by Professor Susanne Kord

Where I'm coming from:

I am a cultural historian, and mostly interested in literature and film. I study how both 'great' works of art, and 'popular' books and movies relate to history and shape human behaviour.

From my experience, I believe that most literature and film is interested in the question – “why don't humans work well together?”. The most common reason is a breakdown in communication. That scene in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Emilia Galotti (1772) where the Prince throws away his ex-lover's letter unopened, thinking he already knows what she'll say? Had he read it he would have known that she was on her way to his castle, with a knife, and very angry, and the final tragedy could have been averted. That scene in Bridezilla, where the bride dumps the groom at the altar because she saw him hugging another woman before the wedding? All could have been avoided if he had only told her that the woman was his half-sister, whom he hadn't seen in 10 years and who showed up to surprise him.

Cultural texts are interested in miscommunication because it is the basis for either tragic or funny consequences.

Looking at miscommunication provides the best training for effective communication: the author and reader always know more than the characters, and can see where the characters went wrong and what the way out might be. Admittedly, it's not that easy to apply this knowledge in real life situations, but—and this is a big but—the imagination is the prerequisite for anything else, from thought to action to decision making. If you can imagine doing better, you actually might.

Effective and ineffective communication

In praise of ineffectiveness

Our fixation on results tends to define 'effective communication' as something that must lead to something else. But does it? Here are two examples:

1. At the beginning of King Vidor's film War and Peace (1956), Count Rostov and Pierre exchange their views about Napoleon, who is currently invading their country. Rostov calls him 'a murderer and usurper'; Pierre calls him 'a colossus, a reformer, a genius'. Neither contests the other's view; both statements are simply left to stand. Are these two people 'communicating'? Or are they just stating their own opinions?

2. I was once on an interminable plane ride from Salt Lake City, Utah, to London. Sitting right behind me were two women, both Mormons, who were exchanging information about their respective versions of the Mormon religion. For 9 hours and 40 minutes I was treated to variants of the following conversation: 'We believe that...' — 'Oh, really? WE don't believe that at all. WE believe that...' Were these two people 'communicating' or just lecturing each other?

These conversations are similar to each other in that statements are unchanged by the other. Opinions are not revised but simply added to. But these exchanges are also fundamentally different from each other. In Example 1, two people hold incompatible views and decide that they won't diminish their friendship by arguing about it. Companionable silence is effective communication where talk would fail.

In Example 2, two people hold opposed views but never transcend their own opinion or consider the other person's. There is no real exchange, no impact of one person's view on the other's. These two talk but don't communicate. They are not listening to each other, but simply waiting to speak.

I offer these two examples to show that conversations that go nowhere, that 'circle the drain,' so to speak, can represent radically different things. In my first example, breaking off the exchange is a mark of mutual respect. This is excellent communication, some of which is expressed in words, some in the silence afterwards. In the second example, the two people learn nothing from, or about, each other: each simply speaks their piece, over and over. This conversation is not communication but its exact opposite: nothing the other person says ever arrives.

This brings me to a question that occupied me while reading the extracts of Khuluma text message data and also during the workshop: does all communication need to be effective in the sense of 'resulting' in something? Or is there a way of being helpful without being effective in any way?

Reading the extracts, I think the answer is obvious. A large number of posts seem to be 'circling the drain' in the sense of going nowhere: simple signs of life (the 'hey, I'm online'-message); asking for communication ('anyone out there?'-message), or vague questions to which a serious answer might or might not be expected ('how are you today?'). But without these acts of circling, more 'effective' posts (encouraging someone else to take their medication, or sharing experiences with peers, family or doctors) would not occur. What communication must do before it can have any kind of 'effect' is turn on the imagination. If you can't imagine that there is someone out there willing to help you, you will never even get online.

At the workshop, I defined 'effective' communication as 'the ability to express what you think, the ability to understand what the other person thinks, and the joint ability to take the conversation elsewhere.' But that is a very 20th/21st century definition, one that reflects our addiction to 'results.' Getting results is an endgame scenario. Before that, all sorts of things can happen in seemingly useless or circular communication that may eventually lead to the land of 'Elsewhere':

•You may recognise your own trouble, maybe trouble you were not aware of, in someone else's messages; or

•You may feel, or establish for someone else, a sense of belonging, safety or comfort; or

•You may train your brain and your imagination by agreeing or disagreeing, or by being upset at what someone else said and asking yourself why you're upset; or

•You may learn a lot about yourself by reading what others say and composing a response; or

•You may be inspired by another's thoughts, or inspire others. This is why it's not a good idea to remain silent when you think you have nothing to say or that what you want to say is 'stupid'. As a teacher, I see this all the time: someone in my class says something they think is stupid, and a fellow student builds a genius idea on that person's 'dumb' idea. Communication, even when it leads nowhere, is a good in and of itself. Circle the drain all you want. You are probably helping without knowing it.

But... but...

So now we have two things already established:

• You need imagination. Without it, you can't communicate.

• You need to communicate. If you don't, others won't benefit from your good (or 'stupid') ideas. Even without any action or result, communication is a good by itself. And without communication, there can be neither action nor result.

But: while imagination and communication are a benefit by themselves and the prerequisites for everything else, there are times when they alone are not enough. Some dangers, fears and feelings can't be countered by words alone. That means there are situations where it's necessary to distinguish whether communication alone helps or whether something else needs to happen as well.

That ability distinguish is part of communication with others. Exchange with others adds their resources to yours. If you don't know whether something beyond communication must happen to help you (or someone else), someone else in the group may.

That ability to distinguish is also part of exercising the imagination, for example by reading. Reading is an ideal way of safe human-troubleshooting because everyone in books is always in trouble.

Let's say you're reading a book about a girl named Mallory (the name means 'the unlucky one'). Mallory is, as her name already indicates, in a mess. You, her reader, can imagine yourself in her situation from a place of safety, and can think much more clearly than she does. Think about how she might get out of her mess. Does she merely need to think about it and learn more about herself? Should she tell someone else? Does she need help beyond talk? Where could that help come from? And if Mallory does not accept help (many book characters don't), why not? What is it within her that leads her to reject help? What would you do in her place? Can you think of a situation in your life when you had similar problems? How did you handle your own trouble before you met Mallory, and how might you do it after?



Text: Susanne Kord

Illustration: Maggie Li; maggie.li

Published on: 14-09-2018

Get Involved

If you would like to help us continue to grow and provide support to people all over the world, you can, by making a donation to one of our projects.

Donate Now

The SHM Foundation is a charitable foundation (registration number 1126568) | Privacy Policy