Power And Pitfalls of Communication

Communication is like magic—it helps us understand each other and work together, just like animals in nature do. Whether we’re sharing secrets or giving orders, talking is what keeps things moving smoothly
By Dr. Mohan Kanda
  • Ancient Sri Lankan soldiers and North American tribes used smoke signals to warn of enemy attacks, each with unique methods
  • The famous ‘Gettysburg Address’ by President Abraham Lincoln is among the most renowned speeches in history
  • From age-old smoke signals to digital communication today, history shows evolution in communication methods, their use, and impact
  • Inspirational speeches by historical figures like Lincoln, Luther, and MLK demonstrate the power of oratory in shaping events and ideologies

AN ecosystem is sustained by interactions between, and amongst, the organisms inhabiting it, with each other and the environment. Such interactions are a major factor in determining how planet Earth sustains itself and evolves through time. All living beings, from microbial organisms to plants, animals and human beings, regularly have such interactions, which are essential for the survival and balance of the ecosystem. The magnitude and diversity of life in the biosphere are enhanced by that process. For example, insects pollinate flowers, which provide them with food, and fungi decompose deadwood, enriching the soil for trees.

ART AND SCIENCE OF COMMUNICATION

Effective communication plays an important role in life, be it professional or private. Facilitating connections which lead to relationships, informed by trust, helps resolve problems and conflicts. Its presence, or absence, can make the difference between success and failure. When effective, it can inspire others to action, making processes proceed smoothly, and planting the seeds for new ways of thinking. It also makes the sharing of ideas, and information, faster and clearer.
Clarity in communication, based on mutual trust, is a critical factor in teamwork, as it boosts morale and adds to the ability to articulate rights and requirements.
Communication isn’t just about talking. It may also be done through subtle methods, such as eye contact or tactile touch, vocal or non-vocal. While vocal communication is through speech, the non-vocal type can use facial expressions, and body language, such as gestures. The non-verbal form, on the other hand, usually happens through social media, such as email, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), or letters sent by post. Written communication may also be through a handout or a piece of printed information, usually provided free of charge, to accompany a lecture or advertise. Sometimes, we write things down to share news or promote events, like with free flyers or brochures.

FROM LOVE NOTES TO CRACKING CODES

If communication is of the amorous variety, one can, in addition, if inclined to adopt that somewhat outdated practice, a serenade to one’s lover, through a window! As Romeo did to Juliet sitting on a balcony! And if you are not content with getting in touch with people inhabiting the living world, and wish to communicate with those in the hereafter, you can always participate in a séance, and establish contact through the agency of a medium!
When a communication is intended to be secret, it is often encrypted, or written in a code, which the recipient is required to ‘crack’, or decipher. Techniques, such as the Morse code, are generally used in such communications. In earlier days, such communications used to take place between railway stations, ships at sea and telegraphic offices.
Most of us have experienced, at one time or another, the feeling of instinctively knowing what is in someone else’s mind, without the need for words, or physical signals, a form of communication from one mind to another, known as telepathy.

Influence across realms, be it politics, business, or personal affairs, is shaped by communication’s potency. From the uplifting charisma of leaders such as Billy Graham and Warren Buffett to the harmful rhetoric of historical figures like Hitler and Mussolini, words wield the capacity to ignite inspiration or provoke turmoil

Communication is best done through a language that is widely understood, to ensure acceptability on a large scale. It should also be free from prejudice, false assumptions and complicated jargon, factors which can cloud its content. Sensibilities of other persons, such as politics, religion and racism should be avoided. Every effort should be made to ensure that the tenor, and tone, are not patronising, or condescending. A touch of humour, and lightheartedness, also serves to smoothen the communication process and make the receivers more respective.
Organisations, or communities, typically have conduits through which information travels, from source to receiver. In organisations, such as secretariats of state governments, for instance, one usually comes across a ‘grapevine’, or an informal network, through which information travels. The term finds its origin in the times of the American Civil War, when telegraphic wires, strung through trees, resembled grapevines.
Speed and clarity of communication are of the essence in many organisational structures, particularly in the armed forces. Instructions, and orders, are usually conveyed through a chain of command, or an unbroken line of authority, extending from the highest echelon to the lowest, clarifying who reports to whom. A span of control, likewise, stands for the number of employees, whose performance a supervisor, or manager, is responsible for.
If a demand has been made that is difficult to comply with, it should always be possible, and is, in fact, desirable, to respond in a manner that conveys the firmness of the stand, without necessarily being offensive.

SENSES TO CONNECT

Communications, in the animal world, take place through the use of the faculties of voice, smell, sight and touch. A mating call is the auditory signal used by animals to attract mates. Aquatic animals can, in addition, communicate through chemical and electrical signals. Birds communicate through chattering, usually heard at dusk, to make their presence known to others, or to establish relationships among the flock. They usually chirp or sing, to indicate imminent danger. Listening to the question and answer session, in which some species of birds engage at that time, is a truly unforgettable experience which I enjoy every morning, as I walk the undulating terrain of the Stone Valley Apartments, a walled colony in which we live.

Smoke signals are among some of the oldest forms of long-distance visual communication, generally used to gather people to a common meeting point, to transmit routine news or to warn of imminent danger

EXPLORING SMOKE SIGNALS AND DRUM BEATS

The long history of communications can be traced, from age-old methods such as smoke signals and drum beats to those in today’s digital age.
Smoke signals are among some of the oldest forms of long-distance visual communication, generally used to gather people to a common meeting point, to transmit routine news or to warn of imminent danger.
In ancient China, for example, soldiers along the Great Wall sent smoke signals on its beacon tower, to warn one another of enemy invasion. Likewise, in ancient Sri Lanka, soldiers, stationed on mountain peaks, alerted each other of impending enemy attacks. Similarly, North American indigenous peoples communicated via smoke signals, each tribe having its own system. Still in limited use in some parts of the world, the system, however, is susceptible to misuse. It is said to have been used by Kings, in the 8th century BCE China, to fool their warlords with false warning beacons, merely to amuse their concubines. The practice continues to be used by the College of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church when a new Pope is selected during a Papal conclave. A secret ballot is conducted until one of the contestants receives a vote over 2/3rds of those voting. At the end of the process, white smoke indicates the successful election of a new Pope, while black smoke indicates a failed ballot.
Drums have also served as a means of communication since times immemorial, especially among cultures living in forested areas during ceremonial and religious functions. Among the major disadvantages of that system was that, once in a way, it became difficult to differentiate between the beats, and misinterpretation of the message invariably followed.

ORATORY THAT SHAPED HISTORY

Inspirational speeches often arise from a dream or a vision. The history of the world is replete with the oratorical masterpieces of great communicators and speeches that changed the course of history, in one way or another. One of the most well-known of such speeches is the ‘Gettysburg Address’, delivered by Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, in the 19th century. It will be remembered for the inspiring words Lincoln famously used, to describe democracy as a “ …. government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Martin Luther, a German priest, author and academician, was a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century ADE. He was known for having rejected several teachings, and practices, of the Roman Catholic Church. In his work ‘Ninety-five Theses’, he proposed amicable resolution of differences, in regard to ‘indulgences’, or remissions granted by God to sinners, after they have performed certain prescribed prayers, or pilgrimages. Following his rejection of that demand by the then Pope Leo X, Luther was excommunicated and condemned, and he was asked to appear before the Diet of Worms, or the general assembly of the Estates of the Holy Roman Empire. He was asked, by an assistant of the Archbishop, whether the writings, which had been laid out on a table before him were his, and whether he stood by their contents. Luther, while confirming his authorship thereof uttered the words, which have become part of history.

noted for his eloquence, brilliance and abrasive personality, was Krishna Menon, India’s Defence Minister during Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, who inspired adulation, as well as angry detraction, in both India and the West

“My conscience is captive to the Word of God………. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”
Perhaps no orator, in modern history, is remembered more for the fire and passion of oratory, than American civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr. A quarter of a million people had gathered, as King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, on August 28, 1963. Not only was the message beautiful, but also the way he delivered it. The speech was a defining moment in the American civil rights movement and continues to inspire millions around the globe, thanks to its simple eloquence.
The revolutionary leader Subhas Chandra Bose, also known by the honorific ‘Netaji’, was one of India’s most influential freedom fighters. A charismatic orator, who was known for his fiery and rousing speeches, his famous slogans were ‘tum mujhe khoon do, main tumhe aazadi dunga’, ‘Jai Hind’, and ‘Delhi Chalo’.
Also noted for his eloquence, brilliance and abrasive personality, was Krishna Menon, India’s Defence Minister during Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, who inspired adulation, as well as angry detraction, in both India and the West. On the one hand, to his supporters, he was an advocate of India in the face of Western imperialism, who “taught the white man his place”. On the other hand, to his Western detractors, he was “Nehru’s evil genius”. He created history by making the longest statement ever at the UN Security Council during three meetings on 23 and 24 January 1957, lasting more than 8 hours.
Perhaps no man’s rhetorical style, and written word, have been studied, and adored, more than those of Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, during the Second World War and later. Known for his ability to capture the hearts and minds of his audiences, and those who read his speeches, he, interestingly enough, made his shortest speech when he once got up to the stand and said… “Never, never, never give up!” and sat back down in his seat.
Qualities of passion, power, and purpose, characterised the speeches of Mrs Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, for over 17 years, spread over two terms. Described as eloquent, erudite, and effective, she used to attack the nub of the issue directly, without an iota of doubt, about her stand on issues. She was unequivocal in her speeches, which were defined by courage, conviction, and clarity.
Despite the amusement his southern drawl caused, Bill Clinton, President of the United States of America in the late 1990s, had a remarkable knack for putting a point across, and the room came alive when he spoke. The energy was tremendous, and he forged a strong and enduring emotional connect with his audience.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former Prime Minister, was a charismatic and multi-faceted personality, renowned for his eloquence and wit. Statesman, poet, author and spellbinding orator, he was, quite literally, a wordsmith. He could use the facility of language to get out of any challenging situation. While, in Parliament, he was heard in pin-drop silence, audiences waited for hours, His oration was always laced with subtle humour, and his gift for instant repartee was unmatched. His choice of words, turn of phrase and the poetry he injected into his expression gave him the ability to even explain the most complicated issue, in simple language.
Over time, however, the social and cultural content of political oratory has declined rapidly, drawing considerable flak from the media and the public.

CONNECTING THROUGH WORDS

Turning from the realm of politics to the fields of business and religion, we see many similar examples. American evangelist and civil rights advocate, Billy Graham, was one of the most popular, and polarising, evangelical preachers of the 20th century. He was able to connect with, and relate to, a wide variety of people, not only in the United States but all around the world. Unlike most CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies, Warren Buffett, legendary American businessman, investor and philanthropist, loves the idea of formulating words to reach, and connect with, his audience, in a very real and very powerful way.

Unlike most CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies, Warren Buffett, legendary American businessman, investor and philanthropist, loves the idea of
formulating words to reach, and connect with, his audience, in a very real and very powerful way

DARK SIDE OF COMMUNICATION

Not all communicators in history have, however, been of the benign type. There was, for example, Adolf Hitler of Germany, who, in the name of establishing the superiority of the Aryan race, wrought untold misery upon the whole world, resorting to heinous and criminal acts, such as the genocide of millions of innocent people. Another of the same genre was the fascist dictator of Italy, Mussolini, an ally of Hitler, whose rhetoric, though trivial in content, was charismatic. Fortunately, however, very few such persons have blotted the history of the world.

THE EMOJI PUZZLE

Thanks to the explosive growth, in recent times, of ’social media’, news travels with amazing speed. The unfortunate part, however, is that with all the recent technological developments, they have also fallen victim to the ploys of unscrupulous manipulators. One often comes across exaggerated, if not totally false, versions of events, cleverly designed to sensationalise otherwise innocuous events and cause anxiety, fear and tension. To borrow the idiom of the modern social media ‘slanguage’, rumours often go ‘viral’. While the truth takes a reluctant backseat, rumours go on an unbridled rampage, causing chaos, and confusion, in an otherwise peaceful, and contented, community. Thanks to the increasingly popular use of emojis in communications, particularly of the digital variety such as social media, a new, and hitherto unfamiliar, set of potentially embarrassing complications has arisen.
To begin with, the more conservative individuals, and organisations, may regard the use of emojis as disrespectful or unprofessional.
Further, a major problem with emojis is that they often have multiple meanings and are open to different interpretations. Therefore, senders, and recipients, may attach different meanings to the same symbol. What is more, different platforms translate and depict them differently. As a result, unintentional, and profound misunderstandings can arise. Also, overuse of emojis can clutter content, rendering it unprofessional and clouding the import of the message being sent.
Obviously, much like the Tribbles, in the classic television series Star Trek, emojis, while cute and a source of great fun, can cause major trouble, if not handled properly. They may be, as a picture is said to be, “worth a thousand words,” Anil
but only when used wisely and cautiously.

RUMOURS AND REALITIES

Effective communication can also be a double-edged sword, as in the case of rumours which are usually currently circulating stories, or reports of uncertain truth, spread with great rapidity, from person to person. Though it is said that they are always started for a reason, that does not mean that that reason is the truth! They often waste time, damage reputations, promote divisiveness and create anxiety. Little wonder, then, that the saying goes that rumours are started by haters, spread by fools, and believed by idiots! Fortunately, however, there is also a variety of rumours, which provide entertainment, by focusing on the lives, and activities, of interesting people.

Unlike most CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies, Warren Buffett, legendary American businessman, investor and philanthropist, loves the idea of
formulating words to reach, and connect with, his audience, in a very real and very powerful way

HARMLESS GOSSIP TO WIDESPREAD PANIC

All rumours need not be of the harmful kind, although, sometimes, they may be slightly exaggerated. Those which roughly correspond to the truth, usually emerge from what is popularly known, especially in media circles, as ‘reliable sources’. Such sources are founded on strong and credible evidence, news that has come straight from the ‘horse’s mouth’, to use the idiom of the horse racing circles. On the contrary, news emerging from sources that can offer no proof, about its being true or otherwise, is generally termed as ‘unconfirmed’.
It must be conceded, however, that, no matter how reliable or otherwise a rumour is a fact, it is that, in the ultimate analysis, triumphs over fiction. The truth will out, to use a well-known expression that was first used, as such brilliant expressions invariably are, by William Shakespeare, in his play, ‘The Merchant of Venice’.
Two sensational rumours rocked the world in recent decades. One was the panic, and terror, that struck the citizens of Hyderabad, on September 24, 1970. Around 6:30 PM, on that day, a rumour was spread that the Musi river, and the Osman Sagar (Gandipet) lake, had breached, and waters were advancing towards the capital, threatening it with submersion. Absolute bedlam broke out, and people ran helter-skelter, desperate for shelter. Everyone was so frightened that, the minute someone chanted “paani aa raha hai bhago”, they simply dumped whatever they were doing, and rushed to safe places, with whatever belongings they could lay their hands upon. They took refuge in whatever shelter they could find until, thankfully, an hour or so later, a public announcement was made, clarifying that the rumour was false.
The other which was spread on February 4 1962, was about the sun the moon, and all the planets from Mercury to Saturn, being clustered within an arc of the sky, and had the entire world, in the grip of fear, and apprehension, what was more, there was a total eclipse of the sun on that day, and doom seemed inevitable, to astrologers and students of Nostradamus.
Somewhat of the same genre, but at a totally different level, was the phenomenon that rocked many parts of the world on 20 September 1995. Just before sunrise on that day, a worshiper, in New Delhi, made an offering of milk, to an idol of the Hindu Elephant headed God of Wisdom, Good Luck and Success of new ventures, Ganesha, at a temple. When a spoonful of milk was held up to Ganesha’s trunk, the milk seemed to disappear, apparently consumed by the idol! Word spread quickly, and by that afternoon, statues of Ganesha were seen, taking in milk in temples all over India the scientific community, however, attributed it to capillary action. And the phenomenon did not stop there. Very soon, Hindu temples, even in very faraway places, such as the UK, Canada, UAE and Nepal, found the same thing happening. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organisation, concluded that a miracle was occurring.

a totally different level phenomenon rocked many parts of the world on 20 September 1995. When a spoonful of milk was held up to Ganesha’s trunk, the milk seemed to disappear, apparently consumed by the idol! The miracle had a cascading effect, and in areas around major temples in New Delhi

The miracle had a cascading effect, and in areas around major temples in New Delhi, vehicular and pedestrian traffic came to a standstill, creating a gridlock lasting several hours. In those parts of the city, where a substantial number of Hindus resided, there was a sudden spurt in milk sales.
People thronged temples, and the queues spilt into the streets, in some cases reaching a length of over a couple of kilometres. Such was the strength, of the faith people placed in the rumour, that the phenomenon soon spread to idols in faraway cities, such as the statue of the Virgin Mary in Singapore, and a statue of Gandhi in Mumbai city. Workers of a political party, in Basti town of Uttar Pradesh states, even began to feed milk to statues of Ambedkar and Buddha which, apparently, the statues imbibed! Similar incidents occurred, later, in Bareilly, in Uttar Pradesh state, Mumbai and parts of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean Islands. Scientists, however, continued to maintain their stand that the apparent consumption of fluids by the various idols and statues was caused by capillary action.

COMMUNICATION IN THE DIGITAL AGE

Communication technology has advanced to the stage where, even interstellar communication, of transmission of signals between planetary systems, is being attempted. The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project has for several decades now, been conducting a search for signals, possibly emanating from extra-terrestrial life, located outside the solar system.
While radio frequencies, in the electromagnetic spectrum, are used by SETI, it has also been proposed that higher frequency signals, such as Lasers, and visible light frequencies, may also prove to be effective. One has to wait, and see, where this exciting cosmic research will lead humanity to.
As a three month old premature born baby, I was placed in the hands of Mahatma Gandhi, who had come to Chennai to lay the foundation stone for the Andhra Mahila Sabha, a welfare organization for women, founded by the legendary freedom fighter and instituition builder, Durgabai Deshmukh. My mother, and Durgabai, had been great friends, and schoolmates, in Kakinada, earlier. I was, therefore, named Mohan Das, which subsequently became Mohan. That, of course, is something I have always been proud of. It was only much later that I realized that I shared another characteristic with the graet Mahatma – bad handwriting! Gandhiji, as a matter of fact, had a poor opinion of the importance of good handwriting, until he went to South Africa where, seeing the beautiful handwriting of lawyers who were his colleagues, he felt bad about his weakness. Mine, in fact continues to be pretty bad – literally bordering on the illegible! Much like the notorious prescriptions, made out by doctors. So much so, that, when I was the District Collector, of Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh state, bets would be laid on what I had written in a file. Difficult though it may be to believe, a separate section had actually been put in place, merely in order to decide what I had written. And it was headed by a person, who had the courage to come to me for clarification!

While radio frequencies, in the electromagnetic spectrum, are used by SETI, it has also been proposed that higher frequency signals, such as Lasers, and visible light frequencies, may also prove to be effective. One has to wait, and see, where this exciting cosmic research will lead  humanity to

Before I stop, here is an amusing story I heard. I relate it with a caveat. It is now universally accepted, that the female of the species is far superior to the male variety, in every way. Be it intellectual prowess, physical agility and fitness or emotional stability,
the man is no match for the woman anymore. From operating spacecraft to climbing mountains, from poetry and music to teaching yoga, there is no activity in which women do not perform better than men. This story relates to the bygone era when such enlightenment had yet to see the light.
A rather distraught looking young man was produced in a court of law, facing a charge of having rammed his car into the one in front of him, being driven by a lady driver. Upon being asked to defend himself, his plea was that, having tried desperately to read the meaning behind the various signals the lady was using, he finally concluded that she was intending take her vehicle up into the air, and confidently drove forward into the imagined empty space!
Clearly, not all non-verbal communications convey a straightforward and unambiguous meaning!

Mohan Kanda

Dr Mohan Kanda is a retired member of the Indian Administrative Service. In his long and distinguished career, he served in various capacities at the State as well as at the Centre including Chief Secretary of the Government of Andhra Pradesh, and Member of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Government of India. He has authored several books including ‘Ethics in Governance - Resolution of Dilemmas - with case studies’

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