Perception Is Reality

Communicating Disposition

Posted on: May 15, 2009

No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and  its consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathize with  others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and  sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to, our  own…Hatred, resentment, esteem, love, courage, mirth, and  melancholy; all these passions I feel more from  communication than  from my own natural temper and disposition.”  David Hume, treatise on  Human Nature, 1740, section xi.

In his Treatise on Human Nature, David Hume touches a very pertinent aspect of human disposition: not only does he highlight the centrality of communication as a foundational principle in our interaction with our social peers, but also the importance of doing so effectively, thereby conveying messages to the clearest degree. So crucial is effective communication in imparting emotions and sentiments, that one may give higher resolve to what is imparted by another, than one’s own judgment.

It is worth noting, that Hume refers to our propensity to sympathize with others as a natural tendency, which communication facilitates. His philosophy states that we feel in alignment with our peers no matter how different our current perceptions and emotional states may be. Simply by communication, our inclination to sympathize with others takes precedence over our judgements and reasoning. In his treatise, Hume provides examples from both the young, naive child who internalizes what is proposed to him, to the wise and rational man who gives preference to the reasoning of his peers (230).

In contemporary society, we see this all the time, spanning across continents, in various circumstances. Take for example, a street beggar in Pakistan who claims to have not eaten for days, with a wife and two children at home also without food. Despite our logical reasoning, we may buy into the idea purely through the way the information is communicated and sympathize with this beggar, feeling his pain. Let us take a look at the Western court room. Even though the jury that decides the fate of the defendant is provided logical proof and evidence of his guilt (or innocence), the closing statements that the lawyers present them with carry both verbal cues and non-verbal gestures that appeal to their higher emotional state. This appeal in effect may trigger sympathy, which as mentioned previously, takes priority over the rational discourse, according to Hume.

It may be noted as mentioned above, that our dissemination of emotions occurs not only through the words we speak, but also by the non-verbal cues we provide the recipient. In terms of the verbal, what we say (the content), and how we say it (speed, pitch, loudness, etc.) is only one aspect of this two-pronged spear. The non-verbal cues we give in terms of our facial and hand gestures, the clothes we wear, the environment in which we communicate also play a significant role on what is understood of the communication that takes place. In a conflicting situation, where the verbal and non-verbal gestures do not complement each other, the message we receive may be “noisy.” For example, a few words of veneration and praise may be taken as a sarcastic comment if we speak through gritted teeth, with our arms folded over (a defensive gesture).

We have established that both verbal and non-verbal communication work in tandem to transmit certain messages, and the more they work together, the more effective this transmission is. When we communicate in a cogent fashion, we trigger the sympathetic aspect of the receiver. This is key in Hume’s philosophy: it is his understanding (and for the sake of this paper, we accept this assumption), that this triggering of sympathy finds its cause more in communication than in one’s natural disposition. By means of persuasive communication, one is able to look at circumstances in a different light. In non-technical language, communication has the power to make us feel in ways that reinforce our emotional state of mind, or change it otherwise. This also means that in a certain way, communication has power over us.

What does this mean for us, today? With the development of a myriad of technologies, how effective are we in communicating? Initially, we would communicate orally with members of society. The advent of the chirographic, and consequently the typographic technologies brought about new methods of communicating that we employed for various purposes as needs arose. Governments, corporations, and institutions of authority apply a variety of media in conjunction with each other to convey messages to its intended recipients in an adequate manner. Through the use of sound, imagery, and creative copywriting, advertisers are able to persuade potential consumers into purchasing a product or even a lifestyle. They appeal not the logic, rational being, but to the instinctual, sympathizing being. If the communication is effective, it is immediately able to put us in a certain state of mind that corresponds with the message. We purchase products not based on their use value: we go far beyond to the emotional state that they will help us achieve.

Let us look at the typical Hollywood movie. A scene involving a modern-day Romeo having lost his Juliet to another sits and sulks in a somewhat empty, dull room with dramatic lighting and a slow love song that plays in the background. The camera moves slowly to pan around and shift its focus between objects in the room and the Romeo to communicate the emptiness and pain he feels. Immediately, we feel for the Romeo and are able to put ourselves in his place, foregoing the fact that we are watching a film with a highly constructive narrative.

At the same time, communication has been the major factor in bringing about revolution. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was able to rally an innumerable number of African-Americans for a common cause. His ability to use words and gestures effectively gave rise to a sensational movement in American history, bringing about significant changes in the social structure and status quo.

Effective communication has significant power in various circumstances. Our propensity to sympathize with both the sender and the message is facilitated by communication. Whether the emotion conveyed runs parallel with, or contrary to our own, through this communication, our sympathetic tendency takes precedence over our rationalizing tendency. Effective communication goes beyond the verbal to the non-verbal as well as the appropriate use of various media technologies to impart messages. In this way, communication has a certain power over us, both as individuals, and communities. Hume understood this well: the passions he felt found their roots more in communication than in his own natural temperament.


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About the Author…

Born in Karachi, Pakistan in an Adventist hospital, I grew up in a city where on one side I experienced poverty and oppression, while on the other I had the good fortune of Tabish Bhimani being a member of an upper middle-class business family...more...

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