Intentional communication keeps horses off the couch

Before traveling to Thailand to adopt our son 10 years ago, I decided it would make sense to learn as much Thai as I could. I had taken some French and Spanish in high school with mixed results, but this time, I was motivated personally to learn. I got some Thai language tapes and listened to them in the car for months.

Looking back, this was probably the best way to learn. Since Thai is a tonal language — the meaning of the spoken word is not only dependent on the consonants and vowels, but on the pitch of the vowel — there’s no other way to really learn the language than to hear it spoken.

In fact, there’s a famous tongue twister in Thailand: mai mai mai mai mai. The mais in this sentence are spoken with different tones (high, low, falling, falling, high), and the sentence means, “New wood doesn’t burn, does it?” Likewise, depending on the tone used with the word ma, you could be saying “horse,” “dog,” or “arrive.”

If you’re reading this as a native English speaker, there’s a good chance you’re feeling a sense of relief that English is not a tonal language. It’s nice to know we can’t inadvertently change the meaning of a word or sentence just by altering the tone we use when speaking. Or can we?

In my last semester of undergrad, I took a nonverbal communication class. Our instructor referred often to a famous study (which I contend was conducted with a flawed methodology, but that’s another story). The study results concluded that 93% of all communication is nonverbal. Included in that figure is 38% that accounts for the tone of a person’s voice.

True, we’re not likely to accidentally confuse someone into thinking we’re having trouble keeping the horse off the couch when we place the emPHASis on the wrong sylLAble, but how many times have you thought you were using sarcasm effectively only to be taken at face value? Or, wished you could do more than yell “I’M KIDDING!” after your attempt at gentle facetiousness landed poorly on someone else’s ears? Or (especially if you have kids), scratched your head at the lackluster response to your clearly urgent request, punctuated by the serious tone of your voice?

As a narrator, this is something that I still often struggle with. When someone hands me a script, I often have nothing to tell me whether to emphasize the subject, object, verb, or other part of a sentence. And it can absolutely affect the meaning.

Let’s say I say to you, “Tom Waits is my hero,” what am I trying to get across to you? Is it that Tom WAITS (not Selleck) is my hero? Or that Tom Waits ACTUALLY IS my hero? That he’s MY hero and not yours? Or that Tom Waits is my HERO, not my carpool partner?

This is why reading the script out loud before recording it is so important. It gives you as the narrator a chance to find those spots of ambiguity and ask the script writer about them. Even better is when the two of you can read through it together in order to catch any phrases that need clarification. Once again, collaboration and intentional communication saves the day.

Incidentally, this kind of collaborative exploration shouldn’t be limited to script reading. You can save yourself — and your client — a lot of hassle and headache when to take the time to make sure you’re clear when negotiating terms of the job up front. Does your client expect you to be available for rerecords for free? What about turnaround time? Do you have a plan for file delivery?

Being intentional with our communication and aware of where we might be misunderstood isn’t something that necessarily comes naturally. But practicing it helps us recognize potential communication pitfalls more easily. It also helps us keep horses from shedding on the couch.

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