…in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
This is a question that I probably first heard of from a close friend when we were in high school. We were in band together, though he took it much more seriously than I did, competing in solo competitions repeatedly until he was finally named the best trombonist in the state in his senior year. Our band teacher had to BEG me to even record an audition tape for a regional honor band, that I did actually win a spot in. I’m certain that experience made a mark on me, but it never would have been something I sought out. I have never really been extrinsically motivated, but I digress.
This friend was always seeking the attention of others, not in a bad way. His drive was expressed through the focus, attention, and praise he received for a performance well-delivered, and he loved to perform. It was all he ever wanted to do.
He was also gay. Coming out in a small southern Oregon town didn’t always garner him the type of praise or attention he deserved, as he really was a brightly shining soul, even then. I remember one day when he worked up the nerve to come to school wearing a T-shirt that read, “I’m not gay, but my boyfriend is.” It took about 10 minutes from the time he stepped onto campus for the principal to find out and alert my friend in no uncertain terms that he was not going to be allowed on the school grounds until he went home to change his clothes.
He also started getting really into some deep-thinking philosophical shit. I never really considered his motivation at the time, but I really enjoyed the conversations we had, one of which began with the title of this post.
I was generally the literal one, obviously. The tree exists, apart from its relationship to its surroundings, specifically human beings in its presence. Sound is a physical phenomenon, based on waves that move through the air, shifting and displacing particles, in a specific frequency and amplitude. As there were certainly thunderstorms creating strikes of lightning and claps of thunder before there were humans to see and hear them. So too with the tree.
I think I still believe this to be true in a literal sense, but the passage of time and my personal growth has given me other lenses through which to view this question. I have come to think of the tree falling as a metaphor for human communication. My starting this blog and writing more or less consistently for the last 2.5 years is a lot like the tree falling. I don’t need for someone else to be reading it, cheering me on or even engaging in conversation over something I post. I rarely consider what message will be received by others when I post. I am simply creating a snapshot of my thoughts in a time and place when I feel called to do so. What you, as a reader, do with it has never been my concern.
Communication between two people (for the sake of simplicity) has 4 distinct and vital stages, in order to be effective. The first is for Person A to gather their thoughts from their brain into a packet of information for delivery. The second is Person A to take the action of delivering the message, including method, language, tone, time, place, intent, etc. Person A may then believe their job is done, message delivered, bang on, now Person B knows the thoughts in my brain. The tree has fallen, but is there anyone around to hear it?
The third step in communication is Person B hearing, reading, intuiting (I’ve been in some ultra-groovy psychic conversations with people before) what Person A said. Were their words clear or do they mumble, stutter, or have some other kind of speech impediment, or were they speaking a language that is not your native language? Is their body language or tone causing cognitive dissonance, as though they are expressing an emotion that does not match their words? Person B has to receive all of this sensory input as well as the words themselves and then the fourth step: interpret the message.
For effective communication to occur, especially between people that are just getting to know one another or where communication has been strained for a period of time, Person B must engage in active listening. This involves reflecting and restating Person A’s statement in Person B’s words to essentially test whether the message received MATCHES the message sent. Only then can both parties be confident that they are on the same page, that effective communication has occurred.
We take shortcuts to the process all the time. Active listening is a bit cumbersome and a pain in the ass, but it is also an essential skill for relationship-building and maintenance.
So if we define “communication” as “the effective execution of thought-sharing through verbal, written, or other means,” it could be that the tree does not make a sound. Person B has just as much responsibility for the thought exchange as Person A, but Person A can also believe that if they sent the message, their thoughts were expressed and their work is done; they have communicated. That is far from the truth. The effective execution of thought-sharing cannot be guaranteed UNTIL it is proven the message has been received by Person B as intended by Person A.
I keep this blog up like a series of falling trees in the forest with no one around to hear them. I have no reason to believe my thoughts are being translated effectively and therefore, I do not truly say I am communicating.
Do you hear the trees?