This George Bernard Shaw quote, brought to my attention by PRI founder Rich Mansfield, is one of my favorites. First, it recalls Rich, who loved to talk literature and harbored a secret desire to teach high school english (for the record, I think his favorite short story was J.D. Salinger’s For Esmé—with Love and Squalor). Second, it’s a beautifully crafted 14-word conundrum. Shaw, with whom I most closely associate with his essays and plays, was (to my surprise) a co-founder of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the only person to date to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938).
Read closely. He is not shy about stating the problem. It’s the single biggest problem. And, it is cloaked in subjectivity. Communication that borders on the solipsistic. Of course, this is familiar ground to Shaw. In Pygmalion it's the social chasms that must be crossed, not the plains or rains of Spain.
Travel down the broken avenues of failed communication, and it starts to look like Shaw is stating the obvious: successful communication is not an empirical measure. A meeting of the minds must occur. Comprehension? It’s not sound waves. It’s psychological.
Consider age and experience. Imagine for example your 90-year-old grandmother chatting with a high school soccer player about their daily fitness routine. Or a person singing along with love songs on the radio in conversation with someone who has just got divorced. Talking and understanding have many points along their paths where they may diverge. It’s easy for each of us to walk away with a different sense of what was just dicussed. Frailty versus invincibility. Soul mates versus the incompatibility of the sexes. To communicate well, one must understand their audience.
If it’s not a communication failure, well, it’s certainly not a success.
Let’s call it an illusion.