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Communication breakdown

What we have here is a failure to communicate

aStop making Memes online colourLanguages change over time, and obviously, English is no exception. Anyone who has tried to read Beowulf in its original form can attest to this.

But recently, it seems that language is changing in a way that makes our communication shallower.

Words like “great,”  “terrific”  and “fantastic”  have become practically synonymous. They all now mean, “very good,” when they previously meant, “large,” “causing terror” and “imaginative or unrealistic,” respectively.

Another example would be the word “currency,” which was once a metaphor used to describe the shifting value of goods in an economy.

These words and much more have become redundant in conversation. They are simply more elaborate and pretentious ways to say simpler words.

In exchange, we learned words like “selfie”, “meme” and “Google.”

Each is useful in conversation but adds breadth to our communication rather than depth.

And depth is sorely needed for us to be able to accurately express ourselves.

Gazelle Farhady, a first-year electrical engineering technology student at SAIT, who also has a degree in English from the University of Calgary, says that studying the language has helped her to enunciate her thoughts more clearly.

And Amanda Chan, who graduated from the University of Calgary with a degree in Psychology and Communications, says that this change is the result of a larger shift in the social and cultural contexts of our society.

“People adjust how they communicate depending on the platform or method of how the message is sent. A recent example would be something like Twitter, where a rule is that a message can only be 140 characters or less,” said Chan.

There are a number of other communications platforms that restrict the economy of language as well. Just look at Snapchat, Tinder or the ill-fated Vine.

They say brevity is the soul of wit, and that may be true. But, when we enforce concision, the first thing we lose is descriptive words.

Without those words, we lose the framing and details and, thereby, it becomes more difficult for others to examine what we say.

Add to that the delicate balance between the speaker and the listener.

“There are two components [to communication]: the sender and the receiver. The sender has to get their message across so that the receiver understands it in the way it was intended. The receiver has to decode the message,” says Chan.

Effectively, what this means is that for me to include a word, first of all, I have to know the word. Secondly, I have to think that either you, the reader, know the word as well, or that the context surrounding the word is clear enough for you to follow my meaning.

But, we are communicating increasingly by Twitter and by text messaging, which are both notorious for their lack of context.

As stated earlier, the sender must simplify his or her language and speak directly in ways that are less open
to interpretation.

More significantly, though, is that the receiver has less context to decode words or phrases that they are not completely familiar with.

From my own observation, this trains the receiver to take a more laid-back approach, and to just try to glean information in a broader sense.

Over time, we lose the practice and the skill required to properly read between the lines, and our ability to communicate slowly erodes.

Which is not to say that there is less to analyze, but that we are simply becoming less equipped to analyze what is in front of us.

A good example of this would be Internet memes, says Theo Waite, a self-professed meme expert in his final semester of the Radio, Television and Broadcast News program at SAIT.

“I think that there is a vast portion of the audience [for memes] that doesn’t understand, and I think people like that assume the authors don’t understand their work either.”

Internet memes, Waite says, started out as very simple joke images with clear punch lines, but have become increasingly abstract and artistic in recent years.

While there are still memes for the casual user, Facebook pages like “Sometimes i just be thinking” and “Green de la Bean” are becoming increasingly popular.

“Right now, a top quality meme not only has to have irony in the content but also irony in the form. The structure of memes is getting less defined, which is good for the abstract direction we’re moving.”

If you look up either of the previously mentioned meme pages, it will not take long for you to figure out whether or not their brand of humour is for you.

And, that is perhaps both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the format of a meme.

In a more traditional joke, the audience is given a premise and walked through to a punch line.

For example, jokes using the old principle of the comic triple would begin by telling two short stories to establish a pattern, and then tell a third story that breaks the pattern for comedic effect. Think, “a blond, a brunette and a redhead walk into a bar…”

But, in the case of Internet memes, the joke is generally blasted at the audience all together. 

Memes are defined by their shared formulas and iconography, and the immediate humour comes from recognizing the similarities and deviations from their prototypical forms.

And, for the majority of its audience, that is where the joke begins and ends. 

But, for more eagle-eyed observers such as Waite, the true appreciation of the joke comes from understanding and examining the conscious choices made by the author.

“It’s just like how most people won’t engage on a deep level with an abstract painting in a museum. Most people would only feel a basic emotion from the tone of the painting, and that’s why people who don’t totally understand memes still find them funny.”

Stories like Hemingway’s Mountains like White Elephants may be an artefact of a bygone age but, God help us, there might be a future for storytelling through Internet memes.

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