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Accurate Miscommunication?

Is it possible that we must sometimes lie in order to properly communicate? Is there such a thing as an accurate miscommunication?

My wife and I were recently in Guayaquil, Ecuador on business, and at some point we asked how far away a particular shopping mall was. We were told ten minutes, which we both knew meant twenty minutes. Another day, when we took the "hour long" trip to a town on the coast we were in the car for well over two hours. My wife, who is originally from Ecuador jokes that this is "Ecuadorian time."

Part of me is a bit uptight about such things. I feel - and say as much at times - that the true time required for this or that journey is obviously longer, so why not say so? After all, how many times can you take a two-hour trip and still think it takes only an hour? The "dishonesty" has to be conscious at some point.

But it occurred to me that it may not be dishonest. It may be inaccurate to say that a given destination is fifteen minutes away when in reality it is thirty minutes, but it may also be the most appropriate thing to say. Why? For these reasons:

1. Language is meant to communicate something effectively.

2. If everyone in a given culture or area is using language a certain way, then using it another way fails to effectively communicate - even if it is technically more accurate.

In other words, if people "fifteen minutes" when they mean thirty minutes, effective communication happens if most play the same game. If, on the other hand, one were to go into such a linguistic environment and accurately say that it is thirty minutes to get to a particular destination, many if not most people could think it is an hour, so you have failed to communicate effectively. You have mislead your listeners in the name of accuracy, or traded actual communication for a kind of logical consistency that you consider more important.

But is it more important to be right than to to be understood when you are speaking to another person? If there is no intent to communicate, why speak to someone at all?

Of course it still annoys me that people choose to distort the language in this way (especially since I have to figure out what they really mean - and this varies from one to another). But when most people in a given culture or area participate in the process, the accurate statement may become more of a distortion - at least if we wish to communicate rather than prove an imagined linguistic superiority.

So perhaps next time I'll skip accurate miscommunication in favor of inaccurate effective communication. Of course, if my listener has recognized my different linguistic culture and adjusted expectations accordingly, I'll be in trouble. Maybe we should all say what we have to say in our own way and learn to interpret what others say according to their own customs.

By the way, we do all have our own inaccurate ways of communicating effectively. After all, we say "just a second" and almost never mean an actual second. We have two-by-four wood studs that have been 3.5 inches by 1.5 inches for generations - and if we actually received some two-inch-by-four-inch studs when we asked for them we would mess up a lot of construction that is based on the smaller size.

What can I add, except that language is a messy affair.

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