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King: Communicating today is easier, yet also harder
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When I couldn’t reach my brother’s home in New Jersey, (I had the wrong area code) I dialed his cell phone. He picked up on the first ring with, "Hey, Joan. Is everything OK?"

An ordinary phone call? Not quite. He was in Portugal on business. Communication in the third millennium. Wow!

And then there is the Internet.

One friend sees the Internet as potential salvation for a divided world though its ability to bring people together; another sees the destruction of responsible social intercourse because there are no filters on what a person can say.

It’s not just technology that’s changing. It’s communication itself, or maybe the quality of communication. At one time, a well-educated person had to study rhetoric. Now teaching the art of effective speech, if done at all, is relegated to English class along with spelling, punctuation and diagramming sentences.

Communication as a separate subject sometimes is addressed in a public speaking class or a course in marketing. But what happens, what doesn’t happen or what goes miserably astray when ordinary people talk to one another receives little critical and analysis.

I’ve had several conversations recently that have essentially gone nowhere because the other party and I weren’t talking about the same thing. It was not deliberate, not the kind of sidestepping a politician does when asked a question he or she doesn’t want to answer. These were more or less casual conversations that hit an emotional cord and produce a dissidence that sidetracked the discussion at hand.

This happens all the time with friends or family. Usually we work it out without ever understanding what happened or why. However, in the global village or even in day-to-day business or social situations, faulty communication can sabotage the best of intentions.

When it happens in a medical situation, it can become tragic. My husband was recently misdiagnosed because of a series of small miscommunications, the result of not listening carefully to what was said: A doctor in a hurry, the intake nurse not getting all the facts straight and the patient’s reluctance to speak up when something was going wrong.

No one person was at fault, and the situation was resolved. In other words, we worked it out. But again, no attention was paid to what went wrong. This is one of the problems we face with health care reform. Today’s doctors just don’t have the time to listen to their patients.

Consider international relations. Some Americans consider talking to a rogue nation useless or even treasonous. But when talks break down, violence usually follows and innocent people get hurt. In a time when communication is almost instantaneous and everyone is talking at once — cell phones, blogs, newspapers online circling the world in seconds — it behooves us to pay a little more attention to the art of communication.

Call it Diplomacy 101, or maybe just Thing Before You Speak. Do you really want to make the other guy mad? If so, have at it, but don’t be surprised if he retaliates. However, I assume that when people talk, they have some other end in mind. They want to inform, to persuade, to impress, counsel or reassure, or maybe just to visit with another human being.

However, whatever you say electronically has a very long reach. It can be used in ways you never imagined. And when you talk face to face, a chance remark may leave an indelible impression. Moreover, what you said might not be what the other person heard.

We text. We blog. We’re constantly on our cell phones. It is time to pay a little more attention to what we’re doing. Are we saying something we want preserved for future generations? Because it just might be.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com.

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