Unequal Communication

Somewhere in one his novels, the dearly departed American writer Robert Anton Wilson has one character say to another that “Communication is only possible between equals.”

It’s a provocative statement, and although it is not completely accurate, it is accurate enough. Communication, to be successful, must be bi-directional. Both people must be able to make themselves understood and be understood in turn. But this isn’t the case in very many of the interactions we think of as communication. Advertisers think of themselves as communicators, but how interactive is a tv spot or a billboard? They send their message, or so they hope, but they receive no message in return. In fact, they spend a lot of money trying to predict the reaction to their message ahead of time, and even more to find out what it actually was – and in both cases, they do indirectly, because the last thing they want is direct communication with the consumer.

Because when you communicate with someone, directly, as an equal – you’re accountable to them.

Think about it. Your boss is superior to you in power, and a part of that is the power to screen out any communication from you he doesn’t want to hear. He’s not accountable to you, but you are accountable to him. I don’t have to tell you that you can’t communicate with your boss the same way you can communicate with your friends – there’s no equality there to support that.

If you’re in a job interview, the people interviewing you have a litttle bit of power over you – which is one reason why it’s so common to be interviewed by committees. Insecure power craves the reassurance, but it’s almost impossible to communicate with a committee as an equal if you’re there as an individual. (It’s usually impossible to do so if you’re there as part of a different committee, too, but that’s more due to refusal to recognise the power of the other committee than any inequality of power.)

Communication is only possible between equals.

Anything else is either ordering (if you’re the more powerful); or defying, apologising or grovelling (if you’re the less powerful).

I don’t tell you this because I’m cynical. I tell you this because I think communicating as equals is a worthy ideal, and I hope you do too.