Opinion: Communication codes


We interact with tons of communication shorthand. We make faces at each other to express myriad emotions, from distrust to sorrow. We pantomime, point and gesture to direct our wishes to those around us. And we use all manner of language conventions to get our points across. We opine, “That dog won’t hunt.” Or demand some time to “get a little shut-eye.” We might even proclaim, “All that glitters is not gold.” With most of us, we figure out the gist.

Like all linguistic and social conventions, older generations teach the youngsters both meaning and intent. Sure, the up-and-comers like to twist the expressions into their own understanding. But for the most part, we all come to accept that a “thumbs-up” is a good thing.

In a recent conversation, the discussion evolved into an assessment of the space between helping someone and doing their work for them. “It is a distinction without a difference,” one asserted. Looking puzzled, another member of the roundtable asked, “What the heck does that mean?” Shorthand only works where everyone knows the code.

It is a common fallacy to attempt to divide into two camps those things that are essentially identical. Parents of small children know the concept when youngsters will argue over possession of two indistinguishable items – something like, “Eat your own apple and let your sister eat hers.”

Demanding the action of another suggests the authority to do so. No payback is required. But if we are asked to help, what exchange is suggested? Help seems collaborative. A demand does not. If we end up doing someone else’s work, is the polite veneer enough to create a distinction with a difference? Even if we rarely collect, doesn’t the one asking for aid assume a debt to repay the favor?