Why Minimalism is Communication 101


“Your total is $12.85. How will you be paying?”


“Would you like your receipt?”

“No, thank you.”

“I can help who is next in line.”

There are days when the check-out line is the only place we score points for clear communication. Not that the achievement is encouraging—it raises to its full, trivial stature and mocks us: “Today, at your best, you managed an information exchange that could have been handled by a moderately intelligent computer.” Maybe if our only needs were for food (and sleep) then we could fill our minds and hearts from the grocery store, as well as our bellies. But we’re determined for something more meaningful, yet frustrated for trying to access it.

There is power in the simplicity of the cashier-customer exchange. It shows how much small units of information may be handy for the listener. Even more, it shows how direct statements are responsible for the speaker feeling heard and being understood. Simplicity is so powerful, in fact, that it frequently balks at our attempts to harness it and send it to work. When the required information is insignificant, like finding out the price of dish soap, we manage. For something more significant—maybe unease about Sunday’s sermon or piercing convictions about change for your community—we exert ourselves for ideas, people and emotions; an infinite number of factors and factors which are infinitely complex. More often than not, one factor is under-or-over-represented or neglected completely, restricting its significant contribution to the situation.

That’s overwhelming. What if we stopped sweating over how direct we’re being and expressed ourselves more spontaneously? Not feeling heard? Just increase your repetition and your volume to an unavoidably noticeable degree. This response may explain one part of my generation’s seething interest in free speech and increasingly uncensored self-expression. That approach will eventually self-correct. Trying to feel heard implicates you in trusting others for some listening. But when everyone is ‘shouting’, no one is heard. Some will have to play listener. Simple communication aids listening and gathers listeners.

Yes, but what if simplicity is too great a risk to significance? There’s nothing like the sinking feeling for when the Trinity is the topic at bible study and climactically, it’s simplified to a metaphor about eggs or Neopolitan ice cream.

Minimalist composer Arvo Pärt once shared: “I could compare my music to white light which contains all colors. Only a prism can divide the colors and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.”  He composes to convey the singularity and purity of an abstract idea; the music is the minimum sound necessary to indicate that idea, bypassing all notes that are frills and fringe. Instead of undermining complexity, simplicity works to elevate the most critical and essential aspect of a thought above its various details and nuances.  It is achieving the total idea with simple elements. Then, in the act of listening, the audience hears the whole idea as something in several parts. It affirms that the simplicity used by composer allowed his audience to receive the complexity of the idea.

The task of conveying what’s on our mind introduces the tug between the things we are positive we know and things we vaguely grasp. You have a choice. Sometimes, you limit yourself purely to what you know for certain. But other times, it seems worthwhile to expand your sentences and cast around for more intricate words, hoping that groping for a thought will eventually mean stumbling into one. You could use plain wording or decorate things up, hoping that all your little gestures will get your listener one step closer to understanding you.

I notice the latter most often. It’s been my preferred method until recently. It’s pretentious. Every time, I am pretending to know more than I actually do. The simplicity of the former way gets for points for sincerity, winning over more listeners.

Minimalist conversations aren’t universally useful. If it works at the grocery store, that doesn’t mean it’s going revolutionize your next family reunion. It’s often quite appropriate to process aloud, despite the baggage of unclear wording, tangents, and assumptions. But as an experiment and a tool not often used, minimalism refreshes us to the possibilities of simple speech and its power to deepen the significance of conversations where it is closest and most important to us.

“Heyyyyyy”: Elongated Vowels and the Alleged Degradation of Language

The way we speak fascinates me, but the way we write is something I’m not sure I’ll ever be done explicitly exploring. It all boils down to forms of communication: in what ways do we convey meaning when we are limited by the internal voices of others? When I write, particularly if we’ve never spoken, you sort of have to assume a great deal about what I’m saying: am I terse, or relaxed? Perhaps I simply want you to get the facts straight, or maybe you should really read into that last thing I just said, alright?

Each time I come across an article decrying the difficulties of written communication, I find myself mentally scoffing. While I admit that text-based conversations or opinions are often more difficult to interpret, I have a sneaking suspicion that if we work harder at it, we’ll be capable of spreading our thoughts more or less as intended, with a degree of accuracy akin to the spoken word.

Even so, text communication is tricky. On the one hand, you’ve got the temptation to slip into some rather strange informal speaking tendencies–duplicating letters, as in the article linked above, or ignoring grammar, as in much of ‘meme speak’–all in the name of sending a simple message. On the other hand–and this is where I tend to lean–you have the temptation to formalize your writing, always attempting to communicate as if you were writing a paper. There’s some leeway there, of course, since the subject matter I deal with in day-to-day IM, e-mail, and texting doesn’t necessitate the sort of high level philosophy that my graduate work does. But the temptation is there, partially because the broader scope of philosophical language allows me to communicate ideas with greater clarity.

I don’t want to overstate that, though. There’s something to be said for the ‘strange informal speaking tendencies.’ For starters, a lot of those tendencies are widely shared; the reason we use that sort of language is because it is understood by others. Further, sometimes our written language simply attempts to reflect its spoken counterpart: sometimes people really do use elongated vowels and say “heyyyyyy,” and our spoken language is often far more informal than the papers you wrote in college (I hope so, anyway, for the sake of your grades, or in my case my friends).

Finally, there’s something to be said about writing in different tones. It’s good that I can write academically when I sit down to hash out some philosophy problem. That may not help me when I’m e-mailing a friend from high school, though, nor will it help if I’m IMing my younger brother. The problem isn’t necessarily with understanding–my brother is a smart guy, though I’m not sure about some of my high school friends–but rather lies with intention: my goal is to talk about what is going on in someone’s life (either his or mine), not debate the existence of minds, or some other such esoteric issue. I should practice both, and perhaps practice other sorts of writing (informal yet professional, professional and formal but not academic, etc.), because I am likely to encounter all of these in my day-to-day life, to some degree or another.

Some suggest that “almost all of our digital communications are total thought garbage, so we get away with the least amount of verbal effort we can.” That makes me sad, though if it is true I suspect it is likely just as true for any of our communications (how much time do we spend gossiping, or talking about other trivial matters?). I suspect we can use our written words to impact the world as much as or more than our spoken words, though it would certainly take a bit of effort.

After all, it was by words that God spoke the universe into existence. The Word became flesh, and we now experience the Word through the recorded words of Scripture. Our responsibility is to think, speak, and write well, whatever medium we may be currently engaging.

Image via Flickr.

When They Don’t Speak Your Language

I have had hack conversations with people learning English, and I myself have butchered foreign languages in order to do something as simple as buying meat from the store. We basically have to throw out all hope of delicate expression and discussion of intentions, getting down to cooperative games of Charades where cheating is the ideal. Being able to communicate (or not) warps my perception of the people I am dealing with, be they middle schoolers or middle aged convenience store owners.

Continue reading When They Don’t Speak Your Language

Flickering Pixels: Reuniting Medium and Message

Do you control the ways in which you communicate, or do they control you?  As Shane Hipps, the Porsche advertising executive turned Mennonite pastor, writes, “Christianity is fundamentally a communication event.”  Hipps’ newest book,  Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, explains why a misunderstanding of the relationship between a communicator’s medium and his message has led to the unintentional and continual reshaping of Western imagination, beliefs, and even interpretations of the Gospel.

It has often been said that while the Gospel message will never change, the methods used to present it must change in order to make it feel immediately relevant to new audiences.  Christians have used countless methods, both conventional and unconventional, to communicate the Gospel:, movies, breath mints, billboards, T-shirts, toys, video games, flannel boards, comic books, and, in Francis of Assisi’s case, even poverty.  On the surface, this makes sense – different methods are saleable to different groups, and it’s important to communicate the Gospel effectively.

Unfortunately, Christians often assume the methods used are unimportant as long as the Gospel message remains unchanged.  In 1967 communication theorist Marshall McLuhan announced, “The medium is the message.”  In other words, the various media we use to communicate are not neutral – they are a message in themselves, and that message inevitably changes the content you intended to convey.

Flickering Pixels is a concise and accessible synthesis of much of McLuhan’s work, written for those unfamiliar with the finer points of communication theory.  It offers unique and illuminating explanations for a number of historical trends of interest to both  scholars and laypeople; for example, Hipps points out that the logical and well-educated Apostle Paul’s letters are especially well suited to a written medium, and in Luther’s time they became very popular.  As print became more predominant, however, Paul’s theology came to be emphasized at the expense of other parts of the Bible:

During the Middle Ages, before the invention of the printing press, the letters of Paul were seldom taught because their complex messages could not be captured in stained-glass scenes or illustrated prayer books…

The printing press not only resuscitated the letters of Paul, it also helped cultivate the reasoning skills necessary in culture to comprehend his message.  This is one reason why Martin Luther’s rediscovery of Paul’s letter resonated with print culture in a way it couldn’t have before that point.

Problems arose, however, when linear reasoning was pushed to the extreme.  The medium reversed, as all media eventually do when overextended… this led to a belief that the gospel could be established and received only through reason and fact.  (Flickering Pixels p. 49)

This artificial preference for one part of the Bible over another, writes Hipps, changed the way Christians interpret the gospel:

The impact of the printed medium… even reshaped the gospel.  The values of efficiency and linear sequence, which became more entrenched in the Western world with each passing decade, changed the way the gospel was conceived.  Under the force of the printed word, the gospel message was efficiently compressed into a linear sequential formula… Such a stunning compression of the gospel would not have been possible prior to the age of the printed word. (Flickering Pixels p. 48)

Pastors in particular will find the book to be a valuable resource as they struggle to communicate the gospel most effectively; Hipps’ easy to understand descriptions of various communication methods will help many better understand  how to be the medium that spreads the message of the gospel.

Most importantly Flickering Pixels helps readers become aware of this complex interplay between medium and message – and awareness is half the battle:

By understanding the forces that shape us, no outcome is inevitable.  Which is the point and purpose of this book: to make us aware…. Stay awake.  Look beneath the surface of things.  And learn to bend.  If we do this, things won’t sneak up on us so easily.  Media and technology have far less power to shape us when they are brought into the light and we understand them.  (Flickering Pixels, p. 183)