“Speaking is a kind of misery,” playwright Annie Baker claimed in an interview about her play, Circle Mirror Transformation, while answering why she had requested an email interview rather than one conducted over the phone or in person. This statement has been on my mind ever since I first encountered it, and still haunts me to this day whenever I stutter or mumble or fail to adequately express myself even in simple, everyday interactions.
“The way humans speak is so heartbreaking to me,” she remarked, ironically eloquent in her own explanation. “We never sound the way we want to sound. We’re always stopping ourselves mid-sentence because we’re so terrified of saying the wrong thing. Speaking is a kind of misery. And I guess I comfort myself by finding the rhythms and accidental poetry in everyone’s inadequate attempts to articulate their thoughts. We’re all sort of quietly suffering as we go about our days, trying and failing to communicate to other people what we want and what we believe.”
Communication is hard and it’s something we all struggle with to varying degrees. As someone who is shy and has always had a difficult time speaking up, I feel this struggle on a daily basis. Like other shy people with anxiety about verbal communication, I rehearse what I’m planning to say in my head before I actually say it, in a valiant yet ultimately futile effort to not stumble over my words. Most of the time, this results in me sounding like an incoherent mess. In ideal situations, I can actually write a script beforehand, like when I’m psyching myself up to make a phone call.
Has anyone ever actually made fun of me for fumbling with my words? Not that I can recall, unless you count the gentle ribbing from my friends. But the anxiety still remains, and the knowledge that my awkwardness makes other people feel awkward is a big incentive for me to just keep my mouth shut. Even when I’m around my closest friends, I still struggle with having important, necessary conversations that solve conflicts and strengthen friendships.
Why is communication so difficult? One way to look at it is that words are an extreme oversimplification of our complex internal thoughts, emotions, and sensations. In order to share these experiences with other people, we have to convert them into words. Then, others have to accept these words and create their own internal representations, filling in the blanks. Language is ambiguous, which is why context and elaboration are so crucial to understanding. With these multiple steps of translation, it’s easy to see how meanings can often be misconstrued. Add worry of being misunderstood on top of that, and it’s a recipe for disaster—or, at least, disjointed conversations full of rambling and backtracking, lacking any real meaning.
So, how can we improve our communication? The first step is to spend time reflecting on what you want to say. The purpose of communicating with friends is to create a shared experience; allow people to share their internal experiences rather than keep them bottled up and secret. Communication helps us feel connected rather than alone. Reflecting on what you want, need, and believe is a great first step to becoming a better communicator. You can do this by spending time with yourself and exploring your own mind, whether that’s through meditation, journaling, or just setting time aside for introspection before you go to sleep or when you wake up in the morning, or even when you’re in the shower, going for a walk, or doing something mindless. In order to communicate effectively, you have to know what you want to communicate, which is easier said than done. You have to know yourself.
The next piece of advice is to be confident. Everyone’s voice deserves to be heard. Successful communication can be incredibly rewarding, creating a sense of trust, honesty, and connection between individuals—and you deserve this trust, honesty, and connection. Vulnerability and openness are daunting in practice, but the rewards are enormous. As clumsy and awkward as it can be, communication is worthwhile because it proves to you that you are not alone.
Lastly, the only surefire way to get better at communicating is to practice. Like most skills, it will be uncomfortable and inelegant at first, but over time it will get easier. The more you speak, the better you get at forming coherent statements without thinking them through beforehand, and the more you experience the rewards of connecting with others. Strike up conversations with strangers, reconnect with old friends, and reach out to new ones. Listen to them and listen to yourself. It’s always okay to restate what you mean and make clarifications so that people understand what you’re trying to say. It’s better to correct yourself than to leave words unsaid, resulting in regret and missed opportunities.
In the end, communicating is all about vulnerability. Putting your voice out there can be daunting, but practice makes it easier. It’s something we all have to work on, and the more understanding we are of each other, the better the world will be. So keep trying to get the words out in whichever way you can, because you owe it to yourself to express your thoughts and ideas. You owe it to yourself to be heard.