by Donald N. Larson
In many ways man is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and perhaps in his capacity to communicate he is primarily “the crowning work of all creation.”1 With little conscious effort he sends and receives messages at a dazzling speed.
In many ways man is "fearfully and wonderfully made," and perhaps in his capacity to communicate he is primarily "the crowning work of all creation."1 With little conscious effort he sends and receives messages at a dazzling speed. Able to memorize long passages written by those whom he has never seen, a man can also produce a sentence that no other man has ever before heard. Father Divine once theologized, "God is repersonified and rematerialized. He rematerialates and he is rematerializatable. He repersonificates and he repersonifitizes."2 In responding to this formulation, one man will claim that it is unintelligible babbling, while another will shout a loud "amen." Think of it: we can communicate without understanding the mechanics of communication) Built-in laws govern our patterns of communication, and although we are unable to describe them in detail, we obey them without question.
We who are concerned with the development and spread of Christian literature often sense that our message is not getting through. Why not? How do we account for the "static" interfering with our readers’ comprehension? What special problems arise when authors belong to one cultural tradition and readers to another?3 Research in anthropology and linguistics is beginning to yield many important insights into communication problems, and from this perspective we can reasonably hope to find better explanations for them. The following discussion attempts to account for such static, and to plot an effective course for the development of Christian literature.
How do we communicate? Seven components are present and interacting.4
1. Communication has spatial and temporal dimensions. We never communicate in a vacuum: each setting is linked in time with those just ending, and in space with those that go on simultaneously in the vicinity. When three people happen to meet and strike up a conversation, their previous activity almost always influences what they will talk about. Furthermore, consider how automatically and subconsciously we lower our voices when we step into a church, or how we may temporarily stop talking when we enter a crowded elevator with a friend.
2. Communication has a dimension of personality. A rather commonplace observation, yet we often do not see how unique configurations of motivation, experience, and relationship influence our communication. Co-speakers assume things about one another, and these assumptions have a strange way of determining the general direction and form of communicative events. In our generation certain instruments help us to communicate. Radios, for example, permit men who have never seen each other to communicate across spatial barriers. Recorders make it possible for men of one generation to preserve their important messages for men of another.
3. Communication involves intents and purposes, and the capacity to verbalize them. Communicating requires an output of energy, and our intent and purpose generates it.
4. Every message we communicate has some substantive meaning, usually consisting of a topic (theme) and a comment about it.
5. We communicate on one of two channels, using either mouth and ears, or eyes and hand. Observe how the blind have developed their sense of touch to compensate for loss of sight, and how deaf and dumb make especial use of hands and eyes as their principal medium of communication.
6. Participants must speak the same language; share a code.
7. The content of our message is wrapped in a form, a style appropriate to a particular setting. Style is not an extra something we add; rather, it is part of all communications. We may react to a message as "tasteless, dull, tedious," and when we do so, we are evaluating its style. Content is often judged in terms of relevance. We judge style, however, in terms of impact. Two components are involved, not just one.
In every communication event these seven components occur simultaneously in patterned configurations. Certain topics require certain styles. When the hand-eye channel is employed, certain styles may not normally occur. For certain participants, a particular topic may be taboo. The interplay of these components has not yet been fully described. We know intuitively, however, when components are mismatched, and to recognize such mismatching is to give silent witness-to acknowledgethat configurations are patterned.
In spite of the fact that we are committed to certain patterns when we speak, it is still possible for us to express our individuality through the use of language. If we lacked such a capacity, communication would be trivial. With it, we can aspire to leadership, go off in wild rebellion, or drift into oblivion talking only to ourselves. Without such patterning of communication, we would have no firm basis for interpreting the messages of others. As it is, the group can inform the individual of his responsibility, and the individual can announce his own approval or disapproval of the group’s position.
Our concern is with Christian literature. To improve its effectiveness we need to look at it in terms of the components that are involved, and to evaluate the naturalness of their interplay.
SENDING AND RECEIVING
Two basic operations axe involved in communication: sending and receiving. Sending-known technically as encodingbegins with intent. Someone has an urge to say something. This urge may be merely self-expression, as for example when the poet says,
His gentle spirit rolls in the melody of souls,
Which is pretty but I don’t know what it means. Or, it may be the urge to get a co-speaker to do something, as for example, when you say, "Go jump in the lake!" Intents are many and varied.5 Once a speaker’s intent is clear, he formulates a plan for transmitting his comment. In so doing he appraises the setting, himself, and other participants. He selects a channel, a code, and a style appropriate to the setting. Only then can he execute the transmission itself, which involves the selection of words, their arrangement into sentences, and their pronunciation.
Receiving-decoding-also begins with intent. We can listen to a television commercial without ever knowing the product. We can look at a billboard or a poster without getting its message. Interpretation – giving meaning to something – requires the expenditure of energy. While we may have little formal knowledge of all factors, it is clear that eagerness to decode is related to the belief that the sender has new information of practical value. When the hearer or reader anticipates "the same old stuff," he may not put forth sufficent energy to decode a message in detail.6 The receiving operation then continues with reception of transmitted sound, finding the units contained in it, and giving each sentence a meaning. Following this plan, the decoder gradually comes up with an image similar, but by no means identical, to the one with which the encoder began.
DISCREPANCY BETWEEN SENDER AND RECEIVER
Now we are at the heart of communication problems: the discrepancy between the message as the sender intends it and as the receiver understands it. How can this be? We tend to believe that a message means simply what its words mean. However, there are two other important dimensions to our interpretation of a message: (1) reinforcement, and (2) noise.
As the receiver picks up the sender’s sounds, or the scrawlings that he makes on a piece of paper, he bases his interpretation not only on the meanings he attributes to the words, but also on the sender’s voice quality, his gestures, and his personal appearance. This supplementary information serves to reinforce, or sometimes correct, the interpretation of the message itself. As a result of this reinforcement, the message received is somewhatdifferent from the message sent.
The second dimension is noise. During communication the receiver’s attention my be diverted by an explosion in the distance, by the conversation of a nearby group, or even by his own growling tummy. When such a noise diverts his attention, the receiver must supply a special burst of energy to recover the lost information. He reconstructs what he assumes the sender said.
Noise, of course, becomes a special problem in oral communication, although there are similar kinds of disturbances in reading. In both cases, however, noise is beyond the control of the receiver. As such, it is fundamentally different from reinforcement, which the sender intentionally provides.
Noise takes many different forms. For example, when a sender uses a language in an unfamiliar manner, this "foreign accent" constitutes a kind of noise for the receiver. In certain instances, it is difficult to differentiate noise from reinforcement. For example, when the receiver has a strong case of prejudice against the sender, every message may be obscured in part by a kind of noise emanating from the receiver’s feeling that "I don’t believe a thing this guy says." Noise and reinforcement, in the sense used above, account for the discrepancy between the message as the sender sends it and as the receiver understands it.
Is the sender, then, at the mercy of these two factors? Not altogether. We know in advance that our co-speaker may understand our messages differently, and if we are at all concerned about it, we watch for any sign of feedback from our listeners, or when we write, from our readers. The skillful public speaker listens for giggles, whispers, snores from his audience, and he adjusts his message continuously as he analyses and interprets feedback. Contrary to popular opinion, sending and receiving do not precede and follow each other in a discrete, orderly fashion. Actually, we send, receive and interpret feedback, reinforce, and filter out noise simultaneously, at a fantastic rate of speed. We bring a lifetime of experience to bear on the creation and interpretation of every message.
SOME DISCREPANCIES LEVELED
Happily, there is a kind of guarantee that at least some of the discrepancies between sender and receiver will be leveled out. In our first few years of life, we learn to sound like our parents when we talk, to call things by the same name, and to string words together in a prescribed way. During childhood and adolescence we also learn about the overall patterns of communication. Our proverbs often attest to this: "Little pitchers have big ears." "Children should be seen and not heard." The adult is fully aware of these many configurations; he knows when to speak and when to be silent, when to say this and when to say that. He knows the typical constraints and supports, the collection of do’s and don’t’s that have to do with verbal behavior.
Consider, for example, that certain settings require participants to assume certain positions. Teachers usually stand, students sit. Consider also the situations that may require written invitations in advance, rather than casual phone calls. When a woman approaches a group of men engaged in conversation, we note that themes may change abruptly and without warning. While most of us would be shocked if our pastor should sing his Sunday sermon, in certain parts of the world religious communication may be transmitted normally through music.
Rarely, if ever, do people stand around telling jokes at the rear of a funeral parlor. Surrounding all our communicative behavior are complex patterns springing from our values, beliefs, and convictions about life.
We must never believe that religious communication, oral or written, has its own special laws and patterns, not subject to the overall patterns of society. The effectiveness of Christian literature is most certainly determined by the norms of culture.
We are not free to discuss religion in any and all circumstances. Some patterns of religious communication are quite rigid: only certain persons lead congregations in public prayer; only certain ones sing solos. Many societies, of course, have not yet developed patterns for written communication on religious topics. We who have an overriding concern for the development of Christian literature cannot escape the need for a detailed understanding of patterns of communication.
ALIENS VS. INSIDERS
Let’s get down to brass tacks! All sorts of complications set in when information is passed from one culture to another. Insiders know the patterns; aliens don’t. When an alien tries to communicate with a group of insiders, his patterns and theirs begin to clash. Differences between them suddenly appear; old habits hang on persistently.
Why does a piece of religious literature that is effective in Omaha fall flat in Osaka? What can we do about it? When a writer prepares something for his own people, he avoids mismatched components, anticipates feedback, and adjusts for it. He knows how to reinforce his message, and he knows the typical kinds of noises the reader will need to filter out. An alien, on the other hand, may have learned the code very well; that is, he may be fluent. Fluency, however, is not the same as an insider’s awareness of communication patterns. An American in the Philippines may have a native-like control of pronunciation and grammar, yet he may not have learned to preface each request with a good bit of small talk.
If missionaries hope to improve the effectiveness of their literature, they must begin with an awareness of their alienness, their lack-of-belonging. Only then can they begin to appreciate the importance insiders attach to communication patterns. The sensitive national plays a vital role in the development of this sense of alienness; he is indispensable to the missionary who hopes to overcome his handicaps. The national can help us weed out unwanted elements, improve our style, and alert us to important sources of help. More importantly, he can evaluate writing from the insider’s point of view; we can’t. He can compare it with the distinctive features of indigenous literature.
ASK BETTER QUESTIONS
We need to ask better questions. How do the general characteristics of a bookstore influence potential readers toward or away from Christian literature? Under what conditions does a man purchase or pick up Christian literature? What are the factors that determine his choice? What are the typical distribution and marketing procedures used by insiders? Do our procedures operate within these limits? Who is responsible to learn the communication patterns of insiders, and to bring back information about them? How is this information applied to a particular piece of literature?
Sensitive nationals can enable us to understand various roles in religious communication. They can advise us about how much the thinking of youth can be shaped by religious literature. They can point out typical censors of information, and alert us to channels we may not have exploited. Nationals can tell us whether or not our fictional characters are believable; they can advise us about the the need for biographical information about authors, and help us seek finer discriminations for various audiences. They can provide insights an alien may never gain by himself.
We often take it for granted that our literature has a general and universal appeal. It is a mistake, however, to assume too much, for our message may treat a subject that is "touchy" in ways that would never occur to us. Or, we may be answering questions that nationals have not yet begun to ask. Nationals are indispensable for learning how to communicate effectively.
HOW IMPACT ARISES
However relevant our topic may seem, it may carry little impact. Impact arises in two important ways:7 (1) Our literature must have anelement of psychological proximity, so the reader can readily identify himself with the subject matter and the characters. (2) There must be an element of unpredictability-newness. If some new solution is proposed, the reader must see its authenticity; i.e., that others with whom he readily identifies have found it.
To develop literature with this kind of appeal, we need to be in close touch with nationals. We need to know their values and how they respond to them. In the Philippines, for example, where Juan de la Cruz (John Q. Public) thinks of life in terms of social acceptance, economic security, and social mobility, a national is more likely to respond to our message when it is deeply imbedded in problems of this kind.’ On the other hand, a fictional account of a youth who saves his pennies, banks them, and ultimately becomes independently wealthy may strike the Filipino as being grossly selfish. Even if the man were a sincere Christian, tithing faithfully and giving generously, the Filipino might think him arrogant and ungrateful. Why? In traditional Filipino life, property and possessions belong to the group, not to the individual. The Filipino who reads such an account may never get the point of the story, for he is unable to identify with the hero! For him the hero becomes rich independently only at the expense of others.
In our tradition, we have learned how to learn through reading. In newly literate societies, insiders may not yet know how to read in this way. They may insist on discussions with those who can explain, interpret, and reinforce what they encounter in written form. In reading and writing there are special problems of feedback, reinforcement, and noise. When a reader fails to grasp the writer’s intended meaning, the author cannot come to the reader’s rescue with a restatement. Through decades of hard work, we have learned to read with imagination, and to identify the particular viewpoint of the author. When a reader does not develop this skill in the course of his education, it is difficult to learn much through reading.
Our material must be adapted to the particular situation where we hope to see it accomplish its purpose. The orthography we use must be efficient, and used widely. We must write so that an inexperienced reader can supply the correct intonation. Format, paper, typography, cover, and binding give silent witness to a book’s origin. We must give these matters proper attention from the insider’s viewpoint. An insider may feel that a book is alien by its external features. In societies where literary traditions are still forming, we have a great responsibility to shape them for generations to come.
When we evaluate the effectiveness of our literature in another culture, it is of fundamental importance that we do so from the insider’s frame of reference. We have learned to employ a wide variety of prose forms, as well as poetry and song, for communicating religious information. We know intuitively what works and what doesn’t. When we focus on another culture, however, we need an altogether different perspective.
To summarize, we need to recognize our alienness, and the need of adjusting to the insider’s point of view. We have often underscored the importance of training nationals to do things our way, yet if we hope to upgrade the effectiveness of our literature, we must submit ourselves to the insider and let him train us to take his point of view. Static is always present in cross-cultural communication. If literature born in one culture is to grow and prosper in another, we must reckon with these problems. While techniques and procedures of editing, revising, testing, and checking are undoubtedly important, the cross-cultural perspective cannot a overlooked, for it dominates everything we do. Aliens and nationals need to team up and learn to look at each other’s cultures from both points of view. Without such perspective, our labors are in vain.
1. Psalm 139:14.
2. Tame, September 17, 1965.
3. A preliminary version of this paper was prepared for the Regional Conference, Evangelical Literature Overseas, Fort Washington, Pa. November 30-Decem ber 3, 1965.
4. For an article of major importance in formulating the theorY of communication reflected in this paper see Dell Hymes, "Introduction: Toward Ethnographies of Communication,9 American Anthropologist. Vol. 66, pp. 1-34 (1964).
5. For a fuller discussion of these points see Eugene A. Nida’s Sociological and Linguistic Dimensions of Literacy and Literature. (New York: American Bible Society).
7. Eugene A. Nida, Toward a Science o¢ Translating (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1964), Chs. 4-6.
8. For missionaries in the Philippines, the following item is of primary importance: Frank J. Lynch, Understanding the Philippines and America (Manila: Ateneo de Manila, 1961).
Copyright © 1966 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.