• Illuminate Singapore

The Art of Communication

I was eavesdropping on my sister and my mom having an argument about shark’s fin soup. My boomer mom was voicing her support for the culling of sharks that was happening in Australia where we live. Citing that sharks were dangerous and bringing to attention many news reports of shark attacks at the beaches that

were all too common on the Australian news. But my sister, ever the progressive Gen Z-er, contested that idea. Calling it inhumane and cruel to kill sharks for the sake of humans. As millennial me sits at the table eavesdropping on this debate, I can’t help but get frustrated at the lack of communication between the two.

They both had a point.

Shark attacks are not uncommon (at least when portrayed by the news) in Australia and there have been reports of famous surfers with near-death encounters from a shark attack or even dying from an attack, including a 15 year old boy just last year. Yet, does this mean it is right to cull sharks? Shark’s fin soup aside, the ethics of culling native animals just so that humans can enjoy something as miscellaneous as surfing does come off as an overkill (pun intended). It was a controversial topic that deserved to be discussed and debated. But that’s not what’s happening here. Instead of listening to each other’s thoughts and opinions, they were too busy trying to prove a point.

Of course, I could chime in with the fact that statistics show the likelihood of someone dying from a shark attack is way lower than dying from a car accident but I decided to do the wise thing and silently retreat into my room.

Growing up, I have always thought of communication as a conversation that happened between two people. Message sent; message received. Yet, the number of times I have experienced communication breakdown in my life has made me question my ability as a communicator. But scrolling through the comment section on Facebook and YouTube (and also from observing the people around me) proves that I’m probably not the only one.

A quick Google search tells me that communication breakdown can be defined as “a failure to exchange information, resulting in a lack of communication”.

In other words; message sent, message not received.

But what causes this “failure to exchange information”?

Since communication is essentially about sending and receiving information, it is how we send and receive information that makes up the bulk of how we communicate. And since the way we communicate is so entrenched on not only our lived experiences, emotional state and our personalities, oftentimes, it results in communication breakdown and consequently, misunderstandings.

1. Our emotional state

As human beings, we are complex creatures that operate with both our emotions and our logic. While some of us are a little better at separating the two, emotions play a big part in how we live and react to the situations around us. Our emotions become the lens through which we receive and interpret information. As a photographer, I have a mentor who I looked up to and who gives me feedback for my work. But this became a problem when every time he gave me feedback, all I could interpret from his texts was that I was a crap photographer. Even though logically I knew his feedback was helping me to improve on my craft, emotionally, I felt like I had screwed up. It was only during a recent catch-up that we finally cleared the air. He didn’t think I was a crappy photographer, in fact he thought I was one of his better ones. But in my own insecurities and high expectations of myself, I had interpreted his feedback as telling me that I’m not good enough. My emotions had clouded my interpretation of his intended messages.

2. Our life experiences

The life we led contributes greatly to who we eventually become. And this in turn, affects the way we communicate as well as receive information. As complex creatures, we can sometimes communicate in layers that we ourselves, as well as others, may not be aware of. This is because our opinions and values are shaped by our life experiences, which in turn, dictate how we see the world. Discussing topics on women and feminism with my male friends can be difficult in this way.

3. Our non-verbal cues

For those of us who studied Mass Comms in Uni or Poly, I’m sure you would have come across the communications pie chart. The pie chart basically presents the three elements of communication; tone, body language and words. What came as a surprise for me back then was how our body language accounts for 55%, followed by our tone at 38% and finally our words at 7%. While words are still incredibly crucial during communication, the way our words and message is interpreted is often influenced by our non-verbal cues, i.e. the tone we use and the body language we adopt. As an introvert with a penchant for overthinking, I finding myself studying a person’s eyes whenever I’m in a conversation with someone. This is especially with people that I’m not familiar with. Whenever they’re looking straight at me and leaning in when I’m talking, it makes me think that they’re interested in whatever I’m saying. But when people look away or move their eyes around, it makes me feel as if they’re not interested in what I’m saying. This only worsens with the advent of technology where we now communicate mostly through text messages, eliminating any non-verbal cues that may help us communicate with more accuracy.

While misunderstandings and communication breakdowns are at times, inevitable, it’s important to be aware of how our own emotions, life experiences and non-verbal cues can seep into the way we communicate with each other and how we receive information. Communication breakdown can sometimes be inevitable, since we have no control over how the other person sends or receives information. But perhaps, what we can do is to listen more and talk less. Had my mom and my sister choose to actively listen to each other rather than try to prove a point, maybe they would have learned something new that day. Or at least it would probably not have ended with my sister slamming her bedroom door.

Written by Simeon Neo

Edited by Koay Tze Min, Aseera Shamin & Samihah Niquat Safeel

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