The story of the Tower of Babel tells how God confused the language of the earth so that people would be unable to communicate. This brings up the question of language and communication. What enhances communication and what inhibits communication? Even more basic, what is communication?
When people communicate deeply--really hear each other and understand each other--it is deeply fulfilling. I think that this is because it reinforces our essential oneness. In our physical forms on earth, we experience a certain degree of separation from each other. Intimate communication is so fulfilling because it brings us in touch with that deeper truth of our oneness. Even if we are expressing different opinions, the knowledge that among us we have these varied opinions and that we are united in understanding and respecting each other is fulfilling. We don't have to agree with each other to understand and to be understood.
As I think about the Tower of Babel story, I wonder if the people there couldn't have managed to understand each other if they had tried. In Genesis 11:7, God says, "Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." The result was that God "scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth" (Genesis 11:8a). Was it really necessary for the people to scatter and leave off building their tower and uniting together in a city simply because they were suddenly unable to understand each other's speech? I don't think so. I think that this may be another indication of the spread of sin, as the biblical writers seem so insistent on emphasizing. The people suddenly couldn't understand each other's speech, so they scattered and left off their project. I believe that, if they had taken time to slow down, get beyond their initial frustration, and ask themselves how they could continue their project even with different languages, they would have found a way. Certainly, people can cooperate and build a tower without speaking the same language.
When people have different opinions, then respect and a desire for understanding can enhance communication. We can have very profitable conversations if we seek, not to convince the other, but to seek to understand the other. People can broaden and deepen their understanding of a subject if they listen closely to those with other views on the subject in a spirit of trying to understand these different points of view, especially if all participants in the exchange share this goal of mutual understanding.
Such a conversation allows me to clarify my own thoughts on the subject, to open myself to other views, to compare my own views with those of others in a spirit of openness, and finally to reach a deeper understanding of the subject. The key is a deep willingness to see how things look through others' eyes. I may come away more deeply convinced of my original view while understanding others' positions more fully, or I may modify my original view in light of what I have heard. I experience this type of listening at the Philosophy Cafe of the New Orleans Lyceum. At Philo Cafe meetings, we consider a question and everyone has a chance to speak to that question. There is much openness to the expression of different views. I have also experienced this type of listening in conversations with friends where we have different views but truly listen to each other in order to understand, not to convince.
Certainly problems arise in communication when we "speak different languages" even though we speak the same language. I think of the elderly gentleman at Galatoire's Restaurant a few years ago who tossed an after-dinner mint onto the table of nearby diners, meaning this as a traditional friendly greeting. One man at the other table, though, took the gesture as an insult, followed the elderly gentleman out of the restaurant, and bashed in his head on the sidewalk to avenge the "insult." This is an example of speaking different languages and of jumping to conclusions, assuming the worst of another. This kind of thing also happens on the international level and causes completely unnecessary wars.
Intercultural communication can be fraught with this kind of misunderstanding. U.S. Americans working with Japanese may appoint the most experienced team member, a young man, to head a task, and the Japanese will be appalled at the lack of respect shown in passing over the eldest team member. In the United States, it makes sense to have the most experienced person head a task, regardless of age or rank; in Japan, this honor is given to the eldest person out of respect, knowing that the elder will consult those more experienced before making decisions. In some cultures, children will avoid looking into the eyes of those in authority in order to show respect; in the dominant white U.S. American culture, the aversion of eyes is taken to be a sign of lying. This causes trouble for children of eye-averting cultures in school. A university student from another country may address a U.S. American professor by last name only without title, calling the professor "Smith" instead of Dr. Smith or Mr. Smith or Ms. Smith. The professor may feel insulted, while the student thinks that he or she is using the correct form of address. An Arabic speaker may ask, "Isn't Mr. Jones in today?" meaning "It appears to me that Mr. Jones isn't in today and I'm asking to confirm if this is indeed true," but a U.S. American may mistakenly hear an insinuation that Mr. Jones really ought to be in today and how dare he be away.
Intercultural miscommunication occurs, not only between people from different cultures, but also between different sub-groups within the same general culture. Books have been written about the misunderstandings between men and women stemming from their different styles of communication. Deborah Tannen has done a great deal of very helpful research and writing in this area. She says that men's talk often has a competitive goal, while women's talk has a bonding goal. As a result, a husband may not talk much to his wife, grateful for the respite from competition at home, while the wife feels that her silent husband doesn't want to bond with her. I also see miscommunication between faculty and students and between administration and faculty at universities.
Those are some of my reflections on communication, emerging from the Tower of Babel story.