Talk about Talking: Basic communication & the Tonic experience

Any person uses roughly around 16,000 words per day. With so much practice, there should be no difficulty communicating with others, right? And yet, all of us have experienced misunderstandings and errors in transmitting messages and opinions, especially in online contexts like Tonic. Why? Because like in practice, it is not quantity, but quality, attention to detail and knowledge that matters. An example: most of the Tonic community will chuckle at “Hey there, lazybones,” others might feel terribly insulted. Communication depends on highly subjective factors such as the backgrounds of the people involved. Let’s talk about how some of the basics of human communication play out in an online environment like Tonic.

First: What is communication? Communication is the exchange of information from one person to another.

One of the easiest ways to explain how communication works is the Sender-Receiver-Model by Shannon and Weaver. As we cannot convey our thoughts to another person directly, we have to “code” them into some form of message. This code will be sent through a channel and will end up on the receiver’s side who will then have to decode the message.

Codes can be verbal, nonverbal, or paraverbal, or a combination of all three.

Verbal means anything that is put into words, including email and text message. The same goes for this blog entry, your communication in practice room chats, and even for singing.

“Hey there, lazybones!” is a verbal message.

Paraverbal refers to how the words are spoken. Tone and pitch of voice, speed of words, and so on are paraverbal signals. Depending on the emphasis on certain words, a verbal statement like “I love you, too” could be either a declaration of love or a sarcastic way of telling someone off. A lot of misunderstandings in chats and electronic conversations happen because the paraverbal signals are missing. Sarcasm and irony are harder to discern if the words are not audible. For non-native speakers, understanding paraverbal signals correctly is even harder (especially when it comes to humor, sarcasm, and irony), so be careful how you use these manners of speaking in both verbal and in written context. They often do not translate well.

Have you ever read a message from a friend or a relative and you could “hear” how they would speak? If you know a person well, your brain will “fill in” the paraverbal signals for you. That is why we can chat differently with friends than with strangers. We can decode the messages more easily because we have experiences with the Sender. But when we’re just acquaintances, or where most of our communication has taken place in text via an app, for example, we don’t have that knowledge of the other person to rely on.

Nonverbal describes every bit of conversation that happens without words. In person that includes facial expressions, gestures, and posture/body language, while in electronic context we have the use of emojis and silly GIFs. Playing music is also a nonverbal form of communication, as you convey information about yourself, feelings, and sometimes even a whole story with your instrument.

Nonverbal codes are open to interpretation. (Don’t let “body language interpreters/experts” tell you otherwise.) No one can read a person’s mind merely by looking at their body. One needs the full context with a speaker's words to understand their message. Because it is so open to interpretation, nonverbal communication can cause a lot of misunderstandings as well, especially because nonverbal signals make up the biggest part of the message - ranging from 55% to 93%.

In electronic context (chats, Tonic), nonverbal communication is often not possible or at best is very limited. The less information you receive to decode another person’s message, the easier it is to misunderstand them. Yet with any action, you are still sending nonverbal signals.

Example: Imagine you enter a Tonic practice room for only a few seconds and then exit without leaving a comment. If the person who is practicing sees you come in and leave, you have just sent them a message without having written a single word. Often people will interpret this nonverbal message as “The person is not interested in my playing” or even “The person hated my playing.” So, if you want to make sure there are no misunderstandings: Leave a comment before exiting a practice room.

If you are not convinced, try another example: Have you ever written someone via text message and received no reply? Do you remember what your thoughts were? You might be questioning what is happening on the other side because you are interpreting their silence as a message. Depending on how well you know the person involved, you might read their lack of reaction as dismissal or coldness, or maybe just a signal that the person is busy.

So, is there even a way to “not communicate” when interacting with another person? Nonverbal communication depends on behavior. As you cannot “not show behavior” you also cannot “not communicate.” This is the first axiom that the psychologist Paul Watzlawik formulated concerning communication. It states that every time you interact with people you are already communicating, even if you don’t want to send a message.

Communication is successful if the message that is sent is the same as the message that is received. Success depends on multiple factors. As you have seen in the prior examples, coding and decoding of messages is highly dependent on the persons involved.

Possible factors that influence communication include the following:

  • Age of a person (A toddler will have a different way of communication than an adult.)
  • (Native) language of a person (An English speaker will talk differently than a non-English speaker.)
  • Cultural background (Nodding in many cultures is interpreted as yes, but in countries like Bulgaria, it means no.)
  • Musical background (The “fourth finger” for a pianist is not the “fourth finger” of a violinist.)
  • Education (A veteran in music recognizes the words “Legato” or “Da capo al fine” and expects other musicians to as well, while a beginner may not know them.)
  • Attention paid during the conversation (If someone is not listening properly, the message will not reach them.)
  • Perspective influenced by personal needs (Being hungry or being sleepy can change your focus on certain terms in a conversation.)
  • Mood (People who are stressed out will react differently to a message than people who are perfectly calm.)
  • Expectations (If you expect someone is angry at you, you will interpret signs that support your expectations more strongly than signs of the contrary, and be more likely to believe the person is angry, even if they are not.)
  • Experiences (The words “interesting” and “sacreligious” will be interpreted differently if you have a TwoSetter in front of you or not. Same with “Hey there, layzbones.” [Sorry, I just love to remind you all of RaySMR.])
  • Relationship to the other person (If your boss comments “You’re leaving early,” it may be received differently than when your co-workers say the same thing.)
  • Knowledge of/Level of intimacy with the other person (Knowing a person and their way of talking makes it easier to interpret messages, while it is a lot harder when meeting someone for the first time.)

Misunderstandings happen if there is a disturbance in the line of communication. The Shannon-Weaver communication model is based on communication via telephone and focused on minimizing disturbances.

There are multiple possible disturbances that can occur. For instance: The Receiver might not hear what the Sender is telling them. Or the message might not get encoded or decoded correctly. Two models that further explore this phenomenon are the “information loss staircase” by Konrad Lorenz, Iceberg-Model by Floyd L. Ruch, Philip G. Zimbardo (based on Sigmund Freud) and “four sides of a message” by Friedmann Schulz von Thun. We will look at possible disturbances more closely in the second part of this series.

Luckily for us—and unlike the implication of the Shannon-Weaver-Model—communication is not a one-way street, but a continuing process occurring between two (or more) persons. One easy way to make sure your message was received is by asking for or observing the feedback of the Receiver.

Feedback can be received by asking additional questions, but also by active listening, gauging reactions or actually soliciting feedback. (“Did you understand me? Am I being clear?”) We will explore how to use the communication models and our knowledge in proper ways to give and receive feedback in the later parts of this series.