Communication filters

A photo of coffee grounds inside a filter.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao @ Unsplash

(Written in 2005, back when I was almost 19. Very minor edits in 2006 and 2018. This article was an attempt to create an explanatory mechanism for the reasons why people routinely misinterpret each other if their perspectives are drastically different. I consider it a prototypical version of my current views on communication. While I mostly agree with my original thesis, I would probably word things differently and wouldn’t claim that people had a herd mentality. I no longer believe that smaller-scale societies are unsophisticated, and haven’t for many years. —FMG, 26 March 2018.)

A communication filter is a “mechanism”, either involuntary, taught, or willed, that prevents effective communication with others. If a pictorial example of a filter is needed, imagine a pair of coffee filters, representing the social filters. The filter’s contents are the topics of the conversation (or piece, or composition, or artwork, or any other form of communication.) With a conversation that is difficult to engage in, imagine the active communicator’s filter being nearly impervious, and the same for the passive communicator. With an easy conversation, however, both communicators’ filters are quite porous and the information transfer is quite easy.

For example, someone may write an abstruse dissertation that is intentionally too difficult for those who are not intelligent or experienced enough to understand. In addition, someone naturally reserved might have an involuntary communication filter when dealing with an extraordinarily gregarious person. A communicatory filter is essentially a mental construct.

Every communication contains at least two filters – the filter of the active communicator and that of the passive communicator. As was stated earlier, a filter can be either voluntary or involuntary, and a combination of ‘thick filters’ (animosity, miscomprehension, misinterpretation) can be inimical to conversation (or any other form of communication.) Conversely, ‘porous’ filters are amenable to conversation and make things far easier. An especially engaging person might have the ability to punch a “hole” into a timid person’s social filter.

Communication filters exist in every communication because of our inherent individuality and varying levels of education, intelligence, age, experience, and other factors. The problem arises when someone’s filter is too thick, inhibiting a proper flow of communication. For example, picture someone unfamiliar with physics perusing a complicated text on astrophysics. Since he has never been introduced to the topic, he is entirely befuddled. The filters in action in this situation are those of knowledge and experience. As he learns more about physics, the filters will become more porous and his mind will be better prepared to comprehend the information on physics. An extremely obvious communication filter is attempting to interpret an unfamiliar language. Imagine someone walking up to you, speaking a language that you are not familiar with. Since your brain can only comprehend English (and whatever other languages you may know), the information posed to you in that other language does not pass through the active communicator’s filter (since it falls on ‘deaf’ ears), and it does not pass through your filter because you do not understand it. There are also ‘culturo-societal’ filters adopted by societies throughout the ages. Cultural filters are another impediment to effective communication. For example, people just visiting Europe may be unfamiliar with a custom or local practice. They may not know which side to drive their car on, or how to eat in a restaurant that serves local specialities. Religions work in a similar way to socio-cultural filters. A Jewish (or Christian, or Buddhist, or Zoroastrian, or Hindu, ad infinitum) worldview may contribute to a social-filter situation. For example, when an evangelical Christian deals with others of another faith, their social filters remain impervious when they make a conversion attempt.

Examples of communicatory filters:

Racism is an egregious example of voluntary (or in some cases, taught) communicatory filtering. The racist’s social filter is nearly impervious to communication against the ‘target race.’ No communication is possible with such an impenetrable filter. Sometimes the racist social filter is something taught from one’s parents, and sometimes it is adopted voluntarily by the possessor. Until the racist is taught how to be tolerant and open-minded, the filter will never become porous.

Communication filters, in conjunction with the herd mentality of most people, might be one of the sources of human aggression. Aggression is often the result of miscomprehension or ignorance – a nearly impervious communication filter. Those from different backgrounds do not always understand each other – hence physical aggression on the individual level and full-scale war, genocide, and ethno-religious conflict on the societal levels. Also, most humans tend to be extremely group-oriented. Groups form loyalties based on such trivial things as hair and eye colour, or they go somewhat deeper into philosophical groupings, based on religion or tribal affiliation. As these groups become more sophisticated in their reasoning, they tend to form more organised societies, such as nation-states. Tribal skirmishes grow to become full-scale wars of attrition. If communication filters were compensated for through compromise and harmony, many of these displays of aggression would be eliminated. Because humans are the way they are and will inevitably hold different opinions, there will always be some degree of conflict and strife. However, by obtaining a superior understanding of why we do not understand each other, we can learn to discard our differences and attempt to make our communication filters more porous so that we are able to communicate without a failure to communicate.

© Finn M Gardiner 2005, 2018. All rights reserved unless otherwise specified.