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Newsletter - October 2007  
"You're just playing with semantics!"  
Ahh; that old chestnut. I've noticed that people use this ploy to minimise your contribution to a shared conversation.

You'll be pleased to know there is a simple reply to this statment which is:

"About fifty percent of communication is Semantic; therefore its important (for me) to express the full meaning of what I wish to say."

This should knock their socks off because nobody is usually chellenged with this statement. Actually, people tend to use it to be picky with your grammar but end up using the wrong term of Semantics.

Semantics is concerned with meanings; Grammar with word order and syntax. BUT the word is NOT the thing. Words only signify a meaning but this meaning can be highly individual. Let me explain further.

If I say "My local pillar box has the colour of red" You might form an image of a UK post box and sense the colour from memory of your knowledge of previously seen pillar boxes. So its easy to assume that when people describe things, one can assume certain characteristics. This is useful because it means that there is a number of 'shorthand' notes we can fall back upon when people speak to us. Now, I'm drinking a coffee as I write this. If I ask you: "What colour is my coffee?"

You can assume but you cannot be entirely sure because from your 'internal' notes, you know that I have options to exercise whether I have milk or not.

This sudden gap in your knowledge of my circumstances is not apparent if you are certain of what my coffee colour is going to be.

Questions you could ask are:

1. How do I know? and
2. Which is the best assumption to make? - if any.

To ask these questions is to begin to ask questions critically - but only critically in terms of accuracy.

Now we are only writing about a cup of coffee. It's not an important issue between you and me. However, when we talk about more abstract issues then shared semantics may become much less obvious.

Consider when someone says "Let's hold a party!" what might be your reaction?

Does your heart sink or rise? Consider your reaction carefully. did you get an image, a feeling or a replayed recording of a previous party as part of your internal 'notes' - or an emotional signal?

Now, how would I know the contents of your internal notes on the subject of 'parties'? Well, unless long-distance telepathy has manifested itself, you'll realise I can't mindread unless you verbalise your experiences. Therefore, under many circumstances, I cannot assume what you are thinking or feeling. (..And of course that's a reciprocal arrangement.)

'Parties' are a concept most people understand, and, in order to write this piece, I can write about many versions for which you can recognise and signify a generalised version of a 'party' for you.

Where things go badly wrong are when people talk about values - such as Peace, Security and Information.

What is 'Security'? The range of options to satisfy what 'it' is may well have many variations. What is your specific signification? To an Palestinian or an Israeli they may well (currently) be different things, but the underlying assumptions may also be different as well.

What is the way out of this morass?

Easy. Ask. Confront BOTH your own assumptions and those people around you about these words and find out what they mean:

1. To you
2. To others.

A simple question to ask is: "What do you mean exactly by 'x' " where 'x' is the abstract idea you want to explore.

Maybe if we explore our own version of the world around us then explore other people's versions then we might find a little common ground to understand each other more fully.

You might even change your mind...

regards,

Steve

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