Sun | Aug 19, 2018

Signal-to-noise ratio

Published:Saturday | August 16, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Tony Deyal, Columnist

I am in the communication business, and one of the axioms that I try to impress on my students is that 'you cannot not communicate'. We each tend to think that we are the centre of the world and that we are all really good communicators, so that if mistakes happen, they are not our fault.

Take this dialogue that supposedly occurred in a court. A judge was interviewing a woman regarding her pending divorce, and asked, "What are the grounds for your divorce?" She replied, "About four acres and a nice little home in the middle of the property with a stream running by."

"No," he said, "I mean what is the foundation of this case?" "It is made of concrete, brick and mortar," she responded. "I mean," he continued, "what are your relations like?" "I have an aunt and uncle living here in town, and so do my husband's parents." He said, "Do you have a real grudge?" "No," she replied. "We have a carport and have never really needed one."

"Please," he tried again, "is there any infidelity in your marriage?" "Yes, both my son and daughter have stereo sets. We don't necessarily like the music, but the answer to your question is yes." "Ma'am, does your husband ever beat you up?" the judge asked a little more vehemently. "Yes," she answered and then added, "about twice a week. He gets up earlier than I do."

Finally, in frustration, the judge asked, "Lady, why do you want a divorce?" "Oh, I don't want a divorce," she explained. "I've never wanted a divorce. My husband does. He says he can't communicate with me."

Let's try another example. John is terribly overweight. He went to his doctor to know what to do. After diagnosing him, his doctor put him on a diet and said, "I want you to eat regularly for two days, then skip a day, and repeat this procedure for two weeks. The next time I see you, you'll have lost at least five pounds."

John returned after the two weeks had elapsed. He had lost nearly 20 pounds. "That's amazing!" the doctor exclaimed. "Did you follow my instructions?" John nodded, "I'll tell you, though, I thought I was going to drop dead that third day." "From hunger, you mean?" asked the doctor. John replied, "No, from all that skipping."

Actually, it is the other person or other people and how they interpret your words and actions that matter. They give you meaning. They interpret your behaviour or your language from their perspective whether you like it or not. You might be dizzy and I might interpret your behaviour as caused by drunkenness. You might be desperately in need of help and I see you coming towards me blood all over you and I run like heck.

In other words, we are always communicating when we are in the presence of other people or in public and what we communicate might not be what we want to communicate. What we wear, the kind of vehicle we drive, the words we use, the kind of phone or the way we speak are all intended to make a particular impression on people.

These devices do not always work the way we want. You buy a really fancy luxury car, a BMW no less, and along comes someone like me who says, "I can understand why you bought a BMW. It is the only car name you can spell."

I started thinking about this when I was driving in Trinidad recently on a two-lane highway and a police vehicle switched from the lane next to me to the lane I was on and cut in front of me without indicating what it was going to do. I had to brake suddenly and the policemen continued merrily on their way, switching lanes again without indicating what they were doing, almost causing an accident when they pulled in front of another driver.

Drivers not using their indicators is something that has become increasingly common in the Caribbean. I remember one night while taking a visitor to the airport in Antigua, the car in front of me suddenly turned right across my lane. I had been helping the person to get around, so I said, "You must have noticed by now that indicators are not standard equipment in cars in Antigua and people prefer to save the money and do without them."

"Is that true?" he asked. He then realised I was making a joke, but it seems to be almost true when you're on the road anywhere in the region.

The same thing happened further on the road with another police vehicle. Its siren was not on (in which case its behaviour would have been worse), but it just kept switching lanes on the highway without ever indicating that it was doing so. I would have taken the licence numbers of the police vehicles if I thought that would help.

I know, and they know as well, that they are breaking the law, but I know, and they know, that I cannot do anything to them. We are all powerless when it comes to the police. We have recourse in theory only. If I call someone in authority, I am inevitably told, "He just step out." If I write about it, as I am doing now, the police will either deny that it happened or say that they were busy chasing somebody and that is why they forgot to indicate.

The point of this is a refinement of 'you cannot not communicate'. It is that even when you don't signal, you actually send out a signal and it can be, like the case of the Trinidad police and all the other careless and inconsiderate drivers, that they really don't care about you and what you think of them or make of their driving. But if you don't use your indicator and cut in front of a police vehicle, you most likely will be charged for dangerous driving.

If there is a third refinement of the axiom 'you cannot not communicate', it is 'you cannot not communicate with the police'. You can even save space and leave out the 'not'.

Tony Deyal was last seen saying he saw an invisible man in his doctor's office, but when he mentioned it to the doctor, he was told, "Tell him I can't see him."