Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category

Compliments never match complements

June 24, 2017

Language is ultimately a matter of usage for the purpose of communication. Grammar is never “right” or “wrong” but it can be “correct usage” or “incorrect usage” or “effective” or “ineffective”. New forms of usage always override existing “rules”. The point of language is communication and if that is achieved – to the communicator’s satisfaction – then whatever manner language is used – whether following current usage or not – is a successful use of language.

Chapter 4: Essence of a Manager

Communication: Hearing what isn’t said

Where a communication is intended, the responsibility for what has been understood lies always with the communicator, not with the receiver. It is why the statement “He did not understand what I meant!” actually reflects poorly on the speaker. The intending communicator cannot escape from the consequences of what has been finally understood by the receiver. 

A European in Japan cannot blame the Japanese for not understanding his English. A grandfather cannot blame his grandchild for not understanding his archaic usage of language. The onus lies with the person intending to communicate. It is the communicator who has the freedom – even the prerogative – to comply with or deviate from conventional usage, or to even invent words. The only test is whether the intended communication was achieved.

Language changes and, in itself, the change should not be a matter of regret. If the change helps to achieve better communication then it can only be a good thing. However not all change does help. It is not also just the generational effect. Usage does change with each generation and generally it improves communication within the new generation. (The abbreviations used on Twitter or Snapchat being a case in point). But not always. Sometimes the generational change is to bring in an increase in sloppiness and a loss of precision in the communication. But the responsibility always lies with the communicator. So when misunderstandings arise between people or across generations, the fault always lies with the communicator.

All this because someone used the word “matching” to describe 4 people in a photograph. (The four were dressed similarly in various shades of blue). I couldn’t quite see what the “matching” referred to and in explanation I was offered “complimentary”. Remarkably, it was actually the misuse of “complimentary”, instead of (I think) “complementary” (which itself would have been a misuse), which did succeed in getting me to understand what the “matching” referred to. A case of two wrongs making a right.

A “compliment” may well be flattering but rarely ever “matches” the “complement” which completes. And not to forget that when it comes to colours, the objective of complementary colours is to finally achieve white or black.

If someone takes offense at an intended insult then that is a case of a successful communication. But, an intended insult delivered by swearing in an incomprehensible language fails miserably as a communication.


We communicate emotions faster with sounds than with words

January 20, 2016

If we include the vocalisations and sounds that we regularly use to express emotions (frustration, anger, amusement, satisfaction ….), our vocabularies are far larger than just the words we know. Very often, and this happens every day, such sounds alone are sufficient for a complete communication.

“Aaaaaaaargh” as your son storms out of the room — for example.

the scream

the scream  edvard munch

A new paper describes a study where brain EEG’s were used to measure how and how quickly the brain responds to such sounds.

M.D. Pell, et al, Preferential decoding of emotion from human non-linguistic vocalizations versus speech prosody. Biological Psychology, 2015; 111: 14 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2015.08.008

From the McGill University press release

It takes just one-tenth of a second for our brains to begin to recognize emotions conveyed by vocalizations, according to researchers from McGill. It doesn’t matter whether the non-verbal sounds are growls of anger, the laughter of happiness or cries of sadness. More importantly, the researchers have also discovered that we pay more attention when an emotion (such as happiness, sadness or anger) is expressed through vocalizations than we do when the same emotion is expressed in speech.

The researchers believe that the speed with which the brain ‘tags’ these vocalizations and the preference given to them compared to language, is due to the potentially crucial role that decoding vocal sounds has played in human survival. 

“The identification of emotional vocalizations depends on systems in the brain that are older in evolutionary terms,” says Marc Pell, Director of McGill’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders and the lead author on the study that was recently published in Biological Psychology. “Understanding emotions expressed in spoken language, on the other hand, involves more recent brain systems that have evolved as human language developed.” ………

The researchers found that the participants were able to detect vocalizations of happiness (i.e., laughter) more quickly than vocal sounds conveying either anger or sadness. But, interestingly, they found that angry sounds and angry speech both produced ongoing brain activity that lasted longer than either of the other emotions, suggesting that the brain pays special attention to the importance of anger signals.

“Our data suggest that listeners engage in sustained monitoring of angry voices, irrespective of the form they take, to grasp the significance of potentially threatening events,” says Pell.

The researchers also discovered that individuals who are more anxious have a faster and more heightened response to emotional voices in general than people who are less anxious.

“Vocalizations appear to have the advantage of conveying meaning in a more immediate way than speech,” says Pell. “Our findings are consistent with studies of non-human primates which suggest that vocalizations that are specific to a species are treated preferentially by the neural system over other sounds.”



This study used event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to compare the time course of emotion processing from non-linguistic vocalizations versus speech prosody, to test whether vocalizations are treated preferentially by the neurocognitive system. Participants passively listened to vocalizations or pseudo-utterances conveying anger, sadness, or happiness as the EEG was recorded. Simultaneous effects of vocal expression type and emotion were analyzed for three ERP components (N100, P200, late positive component). Emotional vocalizations and speech were differentiated very early (N100) and vocalizations elicited stronger, earlier, and more differentiated P200 responses than speech. At later stages (450–700 ms), anger vocalizations evoked a stronger late positivity (LPC) than other vocal expressions, which was similar but delayed for angry speech. Individuals with high trait anxiety exhibited early, heightened sensitivity to vocal emotions (particularly vocalizations). These data provide new neurophysiological evidence that vocalizations, as evolutionarily primitive signals, are accorded precedence over speech-embedded emotions in the human voice.

I have no doubt that human need for communication first gave rise to our vocalisations from the very beginnings of the species homo, but the invention of words – also driven by communication needs – came very much later. So it is not surprising that communication using vocalisations of sounds, which are not words, lies much deeper in our make-up.

Excellence in illustrations

June 4, 2014

A picture is worth ten thousand words — but only when the picture is the right one. Having been involved with presentations and teaching and lectures I can vouch for that.

With the ubiquitous PowerPoint slides, it is quality and certainly not quantity that counts. Using the “right” illustration is extremely powerful and – above all – enables the speaker/presenter to stay on topic and get the message across. When I first started giving lectures I tended – as most beginners do – to have far too many slides to illustrate my talks. I used to try and have almost as many slides as I had minutes to speak. I tried- as beginners are wont to do – to try and get everything I wanted to say onto my slides. I forgot to focus on the message(s) I wanted to leave in the listener’s head.

But that temptation to broadcast rather than to communicate soon changed and the number of slides quickly reduced. I think I really learned the lesson on a trip to Japan when my baggage didn’t arrive and I was forced to make about 5 presentations – each about an hour long – with no PowerPoint slides and only 2 overhead projector illustrations available to me. Nowadays I tend to have at most one illustration for about 5 – 8 minutes of lecture/presentation time. That puts much greater pressure on selection of the right illustration. Paradoxically the “right” illustration is nearly always simpler, less cluttered and more focused.

There is also a downside. Images are so powerful that even one “wrong” illustration out of very many can completely destroy a lecture or a presentation.

John Hopkins celebrated 100 years of medical illustration a few years ago .

The exhibition will make you marvel at the amazing intricacy of the human body, the enormous talent of medical illustrators, and the trajectory the profession has taken over the past 100 years to produce art for medical science. The collection includes an array of subjects — anatomy, pathologic specimens, surgical techniques, textbook illustrations, magazine covers, and more — created with pen and ink, carbon dust, watercolor, photography, and digitized media.

Dr. Levent Efe specialises in medical illustrations and this pregnant elephant is one of their many fascinating works:


Pregnant Elephant Image Credit Dr. Levant Efe

h/t: Science is Beauty

Idiot paper of the day: “Math Anxiety and Exposure to Statistics in Messages About Genetically Modified Foods”

February 28, 2014

Roxanne L. Parrott is the Distinguished Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State. Reading about this paper is not going to get me to read the whole paper anytime soon. The study the paper is based on – to my mind – is to the discredit of both PennState and the state of being “Distinguished”.

I am not sure what it is but it is not Science.

Kami J. Silk, Roxanne L. Parrott. Math Anxiety and Exposure to Statistics in Messages About Genetically Modified Foods: Effects of Numeracy, Math Self-Efficacy, and Form of PresentationJournal of Health Communication, 2014; 1 DOI: 10.1080/10810730.2013.837549

From the Abstract:

… To advance theoretical and applied understanding regarding health message processing, the authors consider the role of math anxiety, including the effects of math self-efficacy, numeracy, and form of presenting statistics on math anxiety, and the potential effects for comprehension, yielding, and behavioral intentions. The authors also examine math anxiety in a health risk context through an evaluation of the effects of exposure to a message about genetically modified foods on levels of math anxiety. Participants (N = 323) were randomly assigned to read a message that varied the presentation of statistical evidence about potential risks associated with genetically modified foods. Findings reveal that exposure increased levels of math anxiety, with increases in math anxiety limiting yielding. Moreover, math anxiety impaired comprehension but was mediated by perceivers’ math confidence and skills. Last, math anxiety facilitated behavioral intentions. Participants who received a text-based message with percentages were more likely to yield than participants who received either a bar graph with percentages or a combined form. … 

PennState has put out a Press Release:

The researchers, who reported their findings in the online issue of the Journal of Health Communication, recruited 323 university students for the study. The participants were randomly assigned a message that was altered to contain one of three different ways of presenting the statistics: a text with percentages, bar graph and both text and graphs. The statistics were related to three different messages on genetically modified foods, including the results of an animal study, a Brazil nut study and a food recall announcement.

Wow! The effort involved in getting all of 323 students to participate boggles. And taking Math Anxiety as a critical behavioural factor stretches the bounds of rational thought. Could they find nothing better to do? This study is at the edges of academic misconduct.

“This is the first study that we know of to take math anxiety to a health and risk setting,” said Parrott.

It ought also to be the last such idiot study – but I have no great hopes.

Imagined action from one brain converted to actual action by another brain

August 28, 2013

It is not quite telepathy but it is the stuff of science fiction. It could be the beginnings of mind-to-mind communication or perhaps it could be the beginnings of mind-control. An EEG signal was transmitted from one brain to a particular part of another brain and elicited a response from the body of the second. Admittedly only from that part of that body controlled by that part of the second brain.

Which begs the question as to whether any signal stimulating that part of that second brain would have elicited a similar response? But this is not the time to cavil or to find fault. The possibilities are endless. If I could imagine actions which would then be carried out by – say President Obama – we could all live in a better place!!

A brain-to-brain communication between two rats and also between a human and a rat have been reported from Duke University and from Harvard. Now from the University of Washington comes this report of the “first” brain-to-brain communication (via the internet) between two humans.

From the UoW press release:

Using electrical brain recordings and a form of magnetic stimulation, Rajesh Rao sent a brain signal to Andrea Stocco on the other side of the UW campus, causing Stocco’s finger to move on a keyboard.

Brain signals from the “Sender” are recorded. When the computer detects imagined hand movements, a “fire” command is transmitted over the Internet to the TMS machine, which causes an upward movement of the right hand of the “Receiver.” This usually results in the “fire” key being hit. – UoW

Rao, a UW professor of computer science and engineering, has been working on brain-computer interfacing in his lab for more than 10 years and just published a textbook on the subject. In 2011, spurred by the rapid advances in technology, he believed he could demonstrate the concept of human brain-to-brain interfacing. So he partnered with Stocco, a UW research assistant professor in psychology at the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

 On Aug. 12, Rao sat in his lab wearing a cap with electrodes hooked up to an electroencephalography machine, which reads electrical activity in the brain. Stocco was in his lab across campus wearing a purple swim cap marked with the stimulation site for the transcranial magnetic stimulation coil that was placed directly over his left motor cortex, which controls hand movement.

The team had a Skype connection set up so the two labs could coordinate, though neither Rao nor Stocco could see the Skype screens.

Rao looked at a computer screen and played a simple video game with his mind. When he was supposed to fire a cannon at a target, he imagined moving his right hand (being careful not to actually move his hand), causing a cursor to hit the “fire” button. Almost instantaneously, Stocco, who wore noise-canceling earbuds and wasn’t looking at a computer screen, involuntarily moved his right index finger to push the space bar on the keyboard in front of him, as if firing the cannon. Stocco compared the feeling of his hand moving involuntarily to that of a nervous tic.

“It was both exciting and eerie to watch an imagined action from my brain get translated into actual action by another brain,” Rao said. “This was basically a one-way flow of information from my brain to his. The next step is having a more equitable two-way conversation directly between the two brains.”

The researchers captured the full demonstration on video recorded in both labs. This video and high-resolution photos also are available on the research website.

Made-up science: “Liking” or “disliking” in general is a personality trait!

August 27, 2013

This comes into the category – not of bad science – but what I would call “made-up science” where something fairly trivial and obvious is made sufficiently complicated to be addressed by “scientific method”.

It is apparently called “dispositional attitude” and it has a 16-item scale to measure an individual’s propensity to generally like or dislike any stimulii! This surprising and novel discovery expands attitude theory by demonstrating that an attitude is not simply a function of an object’s properties, but it is also a function of the properties of the individual who evaluates the object,”  So a “liker” likes everything and a “hater” hates everything!

“Dispositional Attitude” seems neither surprising nor so very novel. Not so very different from what has been called the “Observer Effect” in physics or the “actor-observer assymetry” in attribution theory. It is unnecessarily trying to complicate what is little more than a cliche. Beauty – or liking or hating – lies in the eye of  the beholder and if your personality wears rose-coloured glasses – surprise, surprise – everything appears red.

Justin Hepler & Dolores Albarracin, “Attitudes without objects: Evidence for a dispositional attitude, its measurement, and its consequences,”J Pers Soc Psychol. 2013 Jun;104(6):1060-76. doi: 10.1037/a0032282. Epub 2013 Apr 15.

The Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania has come out with this Press Release:

New research has uncovered the reason why some people seem to dislike everything while others seem to like everything. Apparently, it’s all part of our individual personality – a dimension that researchers have coined “dispositional attitude.”
            People with a positive dispositional attitude have a strong tendency to like things, whereas people with a negative dispositional attitude have a strong tendency to dislike things, according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The journal article, “Attitudes without objects: Evidence for a dispositional attitude, its measurement, and its consequences,” was written by Justin Hepler, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Dolores Albarracín, Ph.D., the Martin Fishbein Chair of Communication and Professor of Psychology at Penn.
            “The dispositional attitude construct represents a new perspective in which attitudes are not simply a function of the properties of the stimuli under consideration, but are also a function of the properties of the evaluator,” wrote the authors. “[For example], at first glance, it may not seem useful to know someone’s feelings about architecture when assessing their feelings about health care. After all, health care and architecture are independent stimuli with unique sets of properties, so attitudes toward these objects should also be independent.”
            However, they note, there is still one critical factor that an individual’s attitudes will have in common: the individual who formed the attitudes.  “Some people may simply be more prone to focusing on positive features and others on negative features,” Hepler said.  …..  
“This surprising and novel discovery expands attitude theory by demonstrating that an attitude is not simply a function of an object’s properties, but it is also a function of the properties of the individual who evaluates the object,” concluded Hepler and Albarracín. “Overall, the present research provides clear support for the dispositional attitude as a meaningful construct that has important implications for attitude theory and research.”
We hypothesized that individuals may differ in the dispositional tendency to have positive versus negative attitudes, a trait termed the Dispositional Attitude. Across four studies, we developed a 16-item Dispositional Attitude Measure (DAM) and investigated its internal consistency, test-retest reliability, factor structure, convergent validity, discriminant validity, and predictive validity. DAM scores were (a) positively correlated with positive affect traits, curiosity-related traits, and individual pre-existing attitudes, (b) negatively correlated with negative affect traits, and (c) uncorrelated with theoretically unrelated traits. Dispositional attitudes also significantly predicted the valence of novel attitudes while controlling for theoretically relevant traits (such as
the big-five and optimism). The dispositional attitude construct represents a new perspective in which attitudes are not simply a function of the properties of the stimuli under consideration, but are also a function of the properties of the evaluator. We discuss the intriguing implications of dispositional attitudes for many areas of research, including attitude formation, persuasion, and behavior prediction.

A retraction can achieve more publicity than the original paper

July 30, 2013

A jaundiced view of retractions and questions of a cynical kind:

  1. Could an article or paper be deliberately written so as to be retracted later for the ensuing publicity?
  2. Can a deliberate retraction be managed so as to generate credit for the journal or the author who requests the retraction?
  3. And is it not “perfectly correct” to cite a retracted paper in a subsequent paper as a  “publication (retracted)”?

A retraction – if sufficiently “interesting” – can get more publicity than the original paper. It may be a cliche but it is nonetheless true  that there is no such thing as bad publicity. And if the retraction is at the “request of the authors” the author may actually demonstrate and even build a reputation for integrity!

This story at Retraction Watch of an article pulled by Slate raises my suspicions that just publicity was actually the objective.


Slate has retracted an essay they published as part of a partnership with Quora, an online question-and-answer site, after acknowledging that they “did not vet the piece properly.”

The piece garnered hundreds of comments, many of which questioned whether its claims were legit, and some of which pointed out that the author may have posted questionable material on the web before.

This now appears where the article, originally published at 5:01 p.m. on Thursday, July 25, originally did:

Editor’s note: On July 25, Slate published in this space an essay from its partner site Quora titled “Are Doctors Biased Against Obese People?” Because the piece did not meet our editorial standards, we have taken it down.

On Friday at 6:09 p.m., brandchannel started a post about the article with a quote from the piece:

When I was pregnant, one OB called me disgusting and told me to have an abortion.

brandchannel doesn’t mention the retraction, which Slate tells us happened Friday night, just over 24 hours after it as originally posted. But brandchannel anticipated that move, including the entire Slate-Quora piece saved for posterity, …..

I note also from Professor Debora Weber-Wulff’s blog that retracted papers still show up being cited – as retractions – in other papers. The paper is in PLoS and is supposedly a peer-reviewed online publication.

36. Rathinam C, Klein C (2012) Retraction: transcriptional repressor gfi1 integrates cytokine-receptor signals controlling B-cell differentiation. PLoS One 7.

Retraction? Are they citing the retraction of the article as a reference for what had been stated in the article retracted? 

Retracted papers are also being included in CV’s! I suppose that the paper was accepted for publication – even if later retracted – is some kind of an achievement!

It reminds me of the old story where CV’s in India would regularly include something like

“BA, 1943, University of Aligarh (fail)”.

This was considered – socially and academically – acceptable as proof that the author had at least done the course and had appeared for the examination!

The need for communication leads to speech and grammar and language

February 25, 2013

Extracts from a recent lecture

from liu presentation -Communication for Managers

  1. Thinking gives rise to words
  2. Words are not necessary for thought –but they help
  3. Many words and many people give rise to the need for cooperation which needs communication
  4. The need for communication leads to speech and grammar and language
  5. Grammar is not necessary for thought – but it helps
  6. Language is not necessary for communication – but it helps
  7. Speech is not necessary for language – but it helps
  8. Message is an information package
  9. Meaning comes first and is necessary for message and needs an algorithm for the conversion
  10. Information is whatever can be detected by our senses (sensory, aural, visual, olefactory…..)


So, once upon another time, I closed my Twitter account

November 1, 2012

Once upon a time I opened a Twitter account.

I found

  1. I followed nobody and nobody followed me
  2. I had no messages – of 140 characters or less – that I desired to paste indiscriminately and with no defined recipient on the Twitter noticeboard.
  3. When I wished to just write something – not specifically directed to anybody – it was easier to do it on my blog where I was not constrained to 140 characters
  4. I had no desire to let the world in general know what I was doing. Where I desired someone or some people to be informed about my activity – or inactivity – email and mobile phone texts were sufficient to my needs and were not constrained to 140 characters.
  5. I found my blog to be my extended space which provided an open access to the world but where I didn’t much care whether anybody read what I had written or not. What was important to me was clearly the writing of the post. The reading of the post by others was an incidental consequence of no great significance (to me).
  6. I found I used communication primarily as a tool to mobilise actions or to induce desired behaviour in others. Here the transmission of an information package was necessary but  the transmission had to be well directed. Indiscriminate transmission of information was ineffective, irritating to the unintended reader and wasteful. To be effective the information package needed direction and needed to be complete for the intended purpose.
  7. Transmission of truncated and incomplete information led – more often than not – to misunderstandings and invoked unwanted responses
  8. Transmission of information without any purpose was not of interest to me
  9. Reading tweets written by twits did not seem to provide any value to me

Twitter is just another medium. The message inherent in this medium is that the tweeter is so obsessed by his own ego that he must broadcast his indiscriminate, purposeless, directionless, 140 character snippets about his life to the whole world. In short that the tweeter is a twit. Perhaps the medium has its uses. But the medium encourages a general “dumbing-down” of transmitted information. It uses “black and white” when “full colour” is available. It downgrades the quality of the information transmitted.

Bad information leads to bad communication which gives bad actions.

It does not seem to add any value for me.

So, once upon another time, I closed my Twitter account.

Essence of a Manager

Chapter 4: Communication: Hearing What Isn’t Said

Communication is the tool that a manager must make use of to mobilise actions from his chosen actors. Communication is a process and not a singular event. It extends from the meaning that he selects and then through all the subsequent steps of converting the meaning into a message which he transmits as information making up a communiqué directed at a particular recipient. The process continues till it is received, interpreted and reconverted into meaning in the recipient’s mind. But the process is not complete until the manager gets the feedback confirming that his intended meaning has been successfully transferred. The manager retains responsibility throughout the entire process. Language and culture enable communication and are not barriers. Focusing on the recipient leads naturally to the process required to generate the desired meanings in his mind. Any manager can make himself into a good communicator. Some will have to work harder at it than others. But being aware of the steps contained within a communications process is where the learning starts.

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