Communication is easy on paper. We say what we think or feel, the other person hears it, and understands it. But in practice, so much can go wrong. Failure to communicate has been the cause of so much grief for people throughout history, even resulting in wars and disasters. Most importantly, poor communication is one of the greatest barriers to building a deep connection with another person.
The problem lies in the fact that despite being social animals, we are quite bad at being social. We care too much about how others may judge us, so we avoid being direct and literal when we communicate our thoughts and feelings. Instead, we choose to encrypt our messages and hope (or worse, expect) that the other person will understand the hidden meaning behind our words.
For example, instead of telling our partner that we are angry at them over something they did, we act passive-aggressively or pick a fight over an unrelated manner. Instead of speaking up about something that is unfair or unjust, we choose to stay silent and accept it to avoid conflict. We will flirt and tease with someone without telling them just how much we adore them. Instead of just saying what is on our mind, we try to package what we want to say in a cryptic form through vague, suggestive messages. Sometimes, we act out like a little boy pulling at the ponytail of a girl he likes on the playground, by sulking or being cruel to our loved ones.
Because we all tend to hide our feelings behind our words and actions, we become conditioned to try and analyse and decode messages to interpret the true meaning of what other people say. But because we are not mind readers, this often leads to misunderstandings. Instead of trying to talk openly with the person, we assume that we have unraveled their true intentions and act on it, which often leads to even more misunderstandings. In time, the relationship breaks down.
This is the reason why practising good communication is such a crucial relationship advice. Why waste our time and energy crafting delicate riddles and trying to be codebreakers, when it will only result in misunderstandings? It would be far more efficient to fight through our awkwardness and insecurities to talk about what is really on your minds.
That said, this is not a simple task and takes a lot of courage and trust. That is why the other takeaway point is how lucky it is to find someone who truly “gets you” – someone who has the patience to listen to you talk in a roundabout way, and spend the effort to try to understand what you really mean. If you find someone who knows you well enough that they can decipher your messages and actually listen to what you are really trying to say, then that is something to be grateful for.
Because the greatest gift we can receive from another person is for them to truly understand us.
In 1989, an array of US Navy hydrophones (underwater microphones) in the North Pacific Ocean discovered a peculiar sound. It sounded very similar to a typical whale song, but there was a crucial difference. Most whales sing at about 10-40Hz, which is a very low frequency sound. However, this specific whale song played at 52Hz – significantly higher than other whale songs.
Bill Watkins was a scientist who became fascinated by this sound. He detected the same sound year after year for over a decade and recognised that it was coming from the same whale. It followed seasonal migration patterns and the song had definite, common features of whale songs. But this song was higher pitch than every other whale he compared it to.
This whale has since been called the “52-hertz whale”, also known as “the world’s loneliest whale”. There have been no other recordings of whale songs like it. There are many theories about what kind of whale it might be, with the leading theory being that it is a hybrid of a blue whale and a fin whale. Because hybrid animals (crossbreeds) have different body morphologies to the parent species, theoretically it could produce a unique sound.
Whales sing to communicate with each other. In the vast ocean, sight becomes easily obscured, but the low-pitched vocalisations of whales can carry on for hundreds of miles. This raises the question of whether the 52-hertz whale’s calls are heard by other whales, given that it is talking in a different frequency range. If they can’t, there is a chance that this whale is calling out into the void, only to be ignored by every other whale. It might have been swimming alone for decades, in search of a partner who can communicate with it.
In some ways, we are all somewhat like the 52-hertz whale. Because we are all unique individuals, even when we talk in the same language, we often misinterpret each other or fail to make a connectionbecause we cannot understand their way of thinking. This is why when you meet someone who thinks on a similar frequency to you, it is a connection worth holding on to. There is no greater thrill than meeting another soul who you can say one thing to and they will understand ten things.
These are the kinds of relationships you should treasure, because for all you know, you may end up like the 52-hertz whale – drifting along the deep blue ocean, desperately calling out in hopes of hearing any kind of reply.
Many people dream of finding “The One” – the perfect romantic companion who is destined to be with you. It is a dominant trope in stories, both old and new. Plato’s The Symposium contains a story about how Zeus split human beings in two to weaken them, so we are always searching for our other half. An old Chinese tale tells the story of the “red string“ – an invisible connection between two people created when they are born, that will eventually bring the two together in the name of true love. There are countless examples of books, movies and TV shows that reinforce the notion that we will all eventually end up with just the right person.
What makes The One so special? Typically, instead of a list of ideal features such as a certain personality or look, most people describe The One as someone who they can connect with, be understood by and feel completed by; someone who they can’t imagine not being with. People who believe in the idea of The One may picture a relationship where things are easy, because the other person will just “get” them and there will be no trouble in paradise. In short, The One represents a perfect relationship with the perfect person, tailored just for you.
But how realistic is the possibility of finding The One? If we look at it from a purely statistical point of view, the chances are infinitesimal. Not only does your match have to be born of your preferred gender, but they must live in the same space and time as you at some point in your life. Even if you happen to find this one person, you have to accommodate for whether you will even notice, let alone be attracted to, them since the qualities you are looking for may vary depending on what stage of life you are at. (Read this wonderful What If? article: https://what-if.xkcd.com/9/)
Of course, the whole point of The One is that despite all of these odds, the two of you are supposed to be brought together by some external force – fate, destiny, the gods, or whatever supernatural power you believe in. Then, it is said that the moment you set eyes on each other, you will feel an instant connection and true love will be born. Some people even believe that “if it is meant to be, it will happen without fail”. Because of this, some people test their relationship by stressing it, or will be more open to letting people go because they believe that if they are truly The One, then surely they will meet again and everything will be alright. This is explored in a short story by Haruki Murakami named On Seeing The 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning.
(Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian)
However, as beautiful as the idea of finding The One is, it can be a dangerous – even toxic – idea.
The most obvious problem is that dreaming of The One sets unrealistic expectations. Even when they are with an amazing, supportive, kind partner, some people will consider them only 80% or 90% perfect. Because of the nature of human greed, we always want something better or greater than what we possess. This makes us less grateful for what we currently have and we fail to appreciate how lucky we are to be with our partner. We may even decide to end a relationship in search of greener pastures, only to regret it and remember that person as “the one that got away”.
On the other hand, people are so afraid that they might not realise that someone is The One that they make the classic error of the sunk cost fallacy. They think that they invested so much time in this relationship that if they leave now, they will forever lose the chance to live happily ever after. This often leads to unhappy marriages and even divorce, causing people to miss out on opportunities of finding someone that they will truly be happy with.
Similarly, because we feel the pressure of time passing by while others seemingly find their soulmates and happy endings, we end up feeling desperate. This desperation may push us into forcing relationships with people who do not share our values, treat us unkindly or generally incompatible with us. Some people will fake an encounter with a supposed soulmate, marry them and hide their problems and resentment, while struggling to put on a happy face for the rest of the world.
Another problem with believing in The One is the concept of fate. It is comforting to think that things are predetermined, but this also makes us lazy. What is the point of looking for the right person or fighting to make a relationship work when fate will just throw you The One at some point in your life? If you believe in fate, it makes you complacent and take less action. Instead of taking the leap of faith, communicating and trying to improve yourself, you think instead “it shouldn’t be this hard if they were The One” and give up. Believing that there is someone out there set aside for you is entitlement. Much like anything in the world, luck and probability will only take you so far. Good things will only come to you if you take action and make an effort.
The inherent flaw in the concept of The One is that it is a black-and-white, binary question: “is this person perfect”? The quest for perfection is as futile as a dog chasing its own tail. When the standard you are comparing everything or everyone is perfection, you are sure to be disappointed.
Furthermore, how can we demand a perfect person when we are not perfect ourselves? As we mature, our preferences and needs change with us. Is it not arrogant to think that we know ourselves so well that we can pick out someone that we think will be perfect for the rest of our lives at first glance?
The perfect partner is not someone that will understand our every action, thoughts and words, and cater to our every need. The perfect partner is someone who possesses qualities we value, have imperfections that we can accept and will communicate openly so that we can work things out with them. No human being is perfect, so every relationship needs to be fine-tuned, negotiated and improved on, which involves each person undergoing change, compromise and sacrifices.
This philosophy sets a much more realistic expectation on our partners and ourselves. We don’t have to be perfect or find someone who is perfect: we just have to find someone who is willing to work with us to become perfect for each other eventually. Someone who makes us happy, while helping us grow to be someone that can make them happy.
There is no one true “The One”. The One that matters is the one who – out of all the imperfect people out there – you chose because you find them awesome and want to try work with to build a happy relationship together, and they feel the same way about you.
The One is someone you made a conscious choice to round them up to The One.
When do we feel awkward? We feel awkward when we don’t know how to act in a certain social situation. For example, some people find it awkward interacting with new people at a party, while others find it awkward to be in the same room as an ex-partner. This is because we cannot predict how the other person will react to how we act, what we say and who we are. Almost everyone is socially awkward to some degree, because we are social animals who fear rejection from the group.
But like anything in life, we can overcome awkwardness. Let us look at two different situations we feel awkward in and how we might remedy this.
With strangers, we feel awkward because we do not know them well enough to predict their perception of and reaction to us. It is hard to tell if our joke would offend them in some way, or if they would judge us for a certain personality quirk. We worry that they will scoff or laugh at us, and that we will be social outcasts.
The solution is simple: don’t care. Don’t care about how a stranger judges you, when they barely know the intricate blend of life experience, personality traits, thoughts and feelings that make up who you are. The only opinion you should care about is what you think of yourself (and maybe of one or two people you trust most in the world to know you best). When you lose your sense of shame and take pride in who you are, you will feel more confident and less awkward.
What about someone you know well, but with whom you have gone through an awkward situation, such as a break-up or a fight? The awkwardness here stems from the fact that you do not know how that situation has changed your relationship. You no longer know if the same rules of engagement apply as before. Is it okay to hug them? Is it okay to talk about the past? What do they think of us now? All of these neurotic questions make us anxious, and to avoid them, we avoid the person altogether. But because the other person feels just as awkward, the relationship wilts away until it cannot be repaired.
Here, the solution is simple, but takes a lot of work: communication. It is impossible to know what the other person is thinking and vice versa. To clear up the awkwardness, we need to talk about our feelings and clear up misunderstandings. This does not necessarily have to be through a face-to-face talk with words. We can show this through our actions, by showing our willingness to rebuild the connection and that we still care about the other person. If either person did not care about the other person at all, then there is no awkwardness because there is a clear answer. Awkwardness is a sign that both sides wants to fix this situation, but they don’t know how.
Awkwardness is a form of anxiety that stems from our concerns of what others think of us. Remember: it’s not awkward unless we let it be awkward.
We now live in the Digital Age. We take photos with our digital cameras, letting us take thousands of photos as we can easily delete photos that did not turn out well. We write emails on our computers, where we often type and retype, proofreading and editing until we have perfectly sculpted our message. We bombard each other with messages that package complex words and feelings into neat little abbreviations and emoticons.
Going digital has, without a doubt, made our lives easier. Digital is exact and fast, while being easily editable thanks to existing only in virtual space. But what is the price of convenience? Did we lose something in the process?
Before the Digital Age, we used film cameras that required careful photography as we had a limited number of shots per roll of film. We wrote handwritten letters, where we had to give considerable thought to what we were going to write before even picking up the pen, lest we waste another sheet of paper. If we wanted to say something important to someone we cared about, we would do it face to face, or at least over a phone call, where our body language and voice gave off subtle nuances about how we truly felt.
As cumbersome as this sounds, the value of analog is that it focusses on quality, not quantity. We no longer have photo albums that summarise a whole year (or even childhood) in just dozens of carefully curated photos. Instead, we have albums full of hundreds of pictures per day, which we rarely review because there are too many to go through.
The worst consequence of going digital is that our words have lost weight and substance. We throw words at each other like paper planes because we feel compelled to reply in some way. We think less about our choice of words because they are a dime a dozen, yet we overanalyse the meaning of what others say in a message because we have no other cues such as body language. We become hurt by hollow words and emoticons devoid of feeling and personality.
We are still analog. We cannot treat each other like photos that can be taken en masse then culled, or a word document that can be freely edited. We should put more care into the things we say to each other – with more thought, feeling and personality – to avoid hurting each other so much.
Out of all the traits and skills we value, admire and teach to our children, one of the most neglected seems to be that of emotional intelligence. Most people are not even aware what emotional intelligence really means.
Emotional intelligence can be summarised as the ability to recognise, analyse and control the emotions of yourself and others around you. It begins with recognising the presence of an emotion, either through mindfulnessor empathy. Once the emotion has been identified, analyse that emotion: where it came from, what effect it is having on the current situation and what the subtext may be. Lastly, use this information to prevent yourself from overreacting, or to understand why someone may be reacting so defensively or aggressively and how to defuse the situation.
Harnessing the power of emotions is a very useful skill. We like to think of ourselves as highly advanced, intelligent beings, but we are still ruled by basic instincts and emotions embedded deep in our brains. Emotional intelligence works to give us more control over our behaviour and unlocking the power to live a happier life. More importantly, it lets us improve the lives of those around us as we are less likely to do or say hurtful things, while being a more kind, supportive human being.
Let us take an example. You are frustrated at your partner because she has not texted back for over a day. Using emotional intelligence, you recognise that you are feeling angry, but also disappointment and rejection. Further analysis shows that these stem from a subconscious expectation that if she cared about you, she would have texted you. The real reason that you are angry at your partner stems from your insecurities, possibly even past trust or abandonment issues. You also remember that she has been very stressed with a project recently, so she may not be in the mood to talk. The end result is that instead of sending passive-aggressive signals at your partner and creating a rift in your relationship, you bring some chocolate ice cream to cheer your partner up.
Like any other kind of intelligence, emotional intelligence must be learned through education and practice. We cannot rein in our emotions if we have never thought about how our past affects us or what motivates or scares us. We cannot possibly understand why the other person is reacting a certain way, if we never trained the ability to see things from their perspective. We cannot help others process emotions such as depression and anxiety, if we cannot understand our own emotions.
We can teach ourselves to be more emotionally intelligent. Meditation and self-reflection allows us to catalogue and interpret your range of emotions. Reading books helps us understand that other people may have a different way of seeing the world. Having deep and meaningful conversations with your loved ones lets you clear up misunderstandings and better learn why people react a certain way in given situations.
We can then apply this knowledge to constantly hone our skills. It may sound exhausting, but every time you feel a strong emotion – whether it is negative or positive – try to analyse it with your rational mind. The more you practise, the more you will be in touch with your own emotions.
Emotional intelligence is an invaluable tool on the journey of life. With increasing levels of emotional intelligence, you quickly realise why things are the way they are. We are all scared little children in the playground, pulling someone’s hair because we cannot tell them that we love them, or punching someone in the face because we cannot withstand the inexplicable surges of insecurity and self-doubt.
Now look back on yourself: how have emotions affected your life and your relationships? What fights and sufferings could have been avoided had you stopped to interpret the emotions and simply talked things out?
The emotional side of you is an integral part of your identity. Why make it your worst enemy when it can be your best ally?
How do we know that the world we perceive is the same as other people? How do we know that what I call “red” looks the same to another person? How do we know that other people are hearing the same music, smelling the same scent or even feeling the same emotions that we do? We infer from other people’s behavioursthat fundamentally, we are all the “same”. We see other people enjoy the same things as us or think along the same lines as us, then we empathise.
However, as human beings, we are unable to read other people’s minds. All we can do is interpret people’s speech and behaviour to try gauge what they are thinking. This means that technically speaking, we can never truly know that other people have minds of their own. For all you know, the person in front of you could be an automaton that is programmed to respond to their environment in a manner similar to you.
As discussed above, we subjectively know (or assume) that other people have minds of their own, given what we observe. But then what of animals, artificial intelligence or even comatose people? How can we know that they have a conscious mind? The short answer is that there is no black-or-white answer, but it sure is an interesting philosophical discussion to ponder – one which has been pondered for millennia. This is the problem of other minds.
We cannot objectively “see” or read into another conscious mind. However, we can approximate what that mind is like from the person’s behaviour – their words and their actions. This is almost like sketching an animal that you have never seen just by listening to someone giving you an account of it. Therefore, if you want to get to know someone – to understand their mind, their essence, their soul – all you can do is talk with them, sketching out the finer details as the conversations get deeper and deeper.
In 1825, an artist by the name of Samuel Morse was travelling to a city far from his home to paint a commission. While working on his painting, he received a letter from his father, which informed Samuel that his wife was ill with an infection. The next day, another letter came, but this time detailing his wife’s sudden death. Upon receiving the letter, Morse immediately returned to his home as fast as possible, but he arrived after they had already buried his wife. This was the age before fast long-distance communication, where messages could only be sent as fast as the horses that carried them.
Frustrated by the inefficient communication methods of his time, Morse became dedicated to devising a better way to send messages over long distance at a much faster speed. After intensive studying of electromagnetism, Morse eventually developed the first concept of a single-wire telegraph. The telegraph could send electrical signals of variable length at fast speeds down wires with a simple button.
Together with the telegraph, Morse devised a code alphabet so that messages could be sent encoded into short and long signals on the telegraph. A dot (“dit”) represents a short press, a dash (“dah”) represents a long press (three times longer than a short press). Each letter is separated by a space the length of 3 dots. Words would be spaced out by a slightly longer pause – the length of 7 dots. Morse designed the code to be efficient and so he made the most common letters (E, I, S, T and so forth) the shortest in length.
Sometimes, we make a mistake while talking to someone and say something to offend them. But what is worse than accidentally doing so is not understanding why they were offended, or why they are suddenly angry at you. Everyone’s life is as unique as their fingerprints, with different experiences leading to the forming of different values. If you do not consider someone’s point of view, what may appear harmless to you may end up being a hurtful comment for the other person.
Even when the message was not particularly offensive, not taking a person’s point of view in consideration can lead to an uncomfortable moment. For example, imagine that you were giving someone a friendly advice when they suddenly turned angry and walked away. If you were to come to me and ask why the person became angry, I could reply in two ways. If I said “Well no surprises there, you clearly didn’t consider their feelings and she had a right to be angry”, you would probably feel quite down. The reason being, you were reaching out with a genuine desire to help, but it ended up with you feeling as if you hurt that person instead. No matter how good your intentions were, the way you say it and the way the other person hears it can turn it into an insult.
Let us use an analogy to make the above lesson easier. Now, let us imagine that I suddenly threw a candy at you with no warning. You will probably be surprised and not catch the candy, letting it drop to the ground. Even though what I threw at you was a sweet candy, throwing it at you when you were not ready just made that candy fall so no one could eat it. Even worse, I might have accidentally thrown it too high and hit your face. Like so, if I throw something at a time I judge to be right, the other person will find it difficult to catch it. But if I was to ask you “Are you ready?” first, then you would find it much easier to catch the candy. The key is to say something when the other person is ready, and in a way that they could accept.
How do honeybees share the location of a food source, such as a flower, to other bees of their colony? An Austrian biologist named Karl Von Frisch devised an experiment to learn how the honeybees communicated with each other. He set up two different food sources and tagged every bee that came to pot A green and bees that came to pot B red. He then studied the behaviour of these bees back at the hive. What he discovered was fascinating.
For millennia, beekeepers have noticed that some honeybees have a tendency of moving in a peculiar yet methodical way once they returned to their hive after foraging for flowers. The bees would move in a straight line while waggling their bottom (moving side-to-side), then walk in a semicircle back to where they started. They would then waggle in the same direction, then move in a semicircle on the opposite side, completing a figure-eight path. This is called a waggle dance.
Frisch noticed that bees with green spots and the bees with red spots both did the waggle dance once they returned to the hive, but in different directions. All bees with green spots danced so that the straight line pointed a certain direction, while the bees with red spots danced the same dance except pointing another direction. Amazingly, the angle between these two directions was exactly the same as the angle separating pot A and B (with the hive as a point of origin). Frisch deduced that the waggle dance was the language of honeybees.
Through further experimentation, Frisch was able to tease out the details of this “language”.
Honeybees’ eyes can see ultraviolet and polarised light, which allows them to see where the sun is in the sky at all times. This is because sunlight polarises so that it points towards the sun and honeybees can see this direction. Therefore, the bee’s eyes act as a solar compass that tracks the exact location of the sun in real-time.
Bees have a finely-tuned internal clock that allows them to predict exactly where the sun should be depending on time, season and latitude, as the sun moves through the sky.
Another point of reference that is used in the bees’ language is gravity. Gravity is a constant that does not change, meaning all bees know which direction is “up” and which is “down”. This also means they can use a vertical, perpendicular line as a standard zero-point.
By pairing the two global constants, gravity and the location of the sun, the bees can accurately signal to other bees the direction they should fly in to find the food source. If a bee does a waggle dance that points 60° right from the vertical “up” direction (as defined by gravity), it signals that the bees should fly 60° right from the direction of the sun. If the angle is 0°, the bees should fly directly towards the sun, and if the angle is 180°, the bees should fly directly away from the sun. The bees use their internal clock to calibrate the direction depending on the time of the day.
The straight line “waggle” part of the dance gives the information of distance. The longer the duration of the straight line, the further away the flower is. As a general rule of thumb, the duration of the straight line increases by 1 second for every 1 kilometre. When the food is within about 60m of the hive, the 8-shape waggle dance turns into an O-shape round dance. The bee deduces the distance by the energy required to fly to the location.
By encoding the two variables “direction” and “distance”, a bee can effectively use the waggle dance to accurately pinpoint the location of a food source. It is amazing to see that animals that we consider “primitive” such as bees have such an intricate method of communication.