Human Communication Always Happens in the Flesh

Two days ago, while I was working on a communications plan for a product release (which I promise I won’t go into), I was suddenly struck by a fundamental fact: Human communication is always incarnate communication. Period. Hard stop. No exceptions. We communicate in the flesh or not at all.

Put another way: if and whenever we communicate, we do so by means of our bodies. Even the most abstract arguments, the most ephemeral ideas, and the (seemingly) least material data reach us only through our eyes, our ears, our skin. And we experience them not as automatons or cyborgs, but as living, breathing human beings. We experience them, literally, in and through our flesh–even when they arrive over the phone lines, the satellites, or the wireless local area network.

This might seem like an obvious point at first blush, but think about it for a minute. The fact that all communications pass through our bodies–the only systems we have for taking in new information from each other and the world–has some pretty important implications, especially if you’re writing a book or a blog post or a communications plan. Among them:

#1 – Your audience is a bunch of animals (like you)

Party animals, perhaps. Social animals, surely. Homo sapiens sapiens, without doubt. This is perhaps the most obvious thing you can know about your audience–and one of the easiest things to forget: It consists of embodied human beings who, in the grand scheme of things, are a lot like you.

We all have similar bodies with largely the same basic needs. We all see in roughly the same visual ranges, hear in roughly the same decibel ranges, and use the same organs to smell and taste and feel our worlds. We all bring to bear a range of tools–words, stories, numbers, images–that our bodies have internalized and through which they try to make sense of the world. These tools and what they produce can differ greatly, but the bodies that internalize and use them have a great deal in common, and this commonality provides a means for working out (or at least working on) the differences.

At the end of the day, our shared embodiment establishes a sort of virtual circuitry between and among us, a set of potential connections waiting to be forged. It’s no coincidence that, in the moments when words fail us, we revert to gesture and touch. Our deepest, most primal communications still happen flesh-to-flesh.

In our understandable rush to recognize difference, we can sometimes forget this crucial underlying commonality, the “common” embodiment that ultimately makes both “community” and “communication” possible.

#2 – Even as the flesh is weak, so are your communications

Flesh provides the ground for communication, but it’s hardly terra firma. Precisely because they always happen through our bodies, communications are always liable to the vagaries of embodied experience. We are not central processing units. Nor are we strictly objective or rational, though many of us love to be talked to as if we were.

We are embodied creatures, and when our bodies are injured, angry, stressed, hungry, or even live in poverty, we process and share information differently–precisely because we are in those states. What’s more, every body is always in some such state, at least to some degree. We are never blank slates or wholly objective receiver/observers. Along with our bodies, we are inherently fallible, malleable, and unpredictable.

As such, we will always tend to miss-hear, misread, miss-view, and otherwise mistake each other’s messages to some degree. And the degree to which we will tend to mistake one another will increase, almost necessarily, to the extent that our flesh is otherwise preoccupied. A man in a noisy room may have trouble hearing you. And so may a man who is continually checking his phone. But a man whose feet are on fire will have even more trouble hearing you, even if the room you’re in is quiet and his cell phone is dead as a Dickensian doornail.

#3 – You have to touch people where they think

Our capacity to reach an audience, then, depends not only on context but also on the current state of a person’s flesh. If this sounds almost uncomfortably intimate, so be it. That is the reality of communication: It involves contact. And while we tend to think of such contact purely as a “meeting of the minds” that is an illusion. The contact is physical.

To communicate, you have to actually stimulate someone else’s brain in just the right way. You have to spark a response and shape an idea within that person’s flesh–through their particular eyes and ears, by means of their actual neural circuitry. Having a message and properly encoding it and sending it to a receiver isn’t enough. You have to find a way to touch the other person where they think

It’s important to bear this in mind in the current era of digital communications, when we tend to focus too much on page views and pixel counts and too little on people and their pulse rates. Putting a message on a page somewhere doesn’t count as communication (no matter what my product release plan says). It only counts as communication if somebody else internalizes and understands your message. It only counts as communication if your message becomes incarnate in somebody.

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