All behaviour is communication, right?Posted: February 9, 2018 Embed from Getty Images
The philosopher, Daniel Dennett, has introduced the world to the concept of the ‘deepity’. This is a statement that can be read on two different levels. On the first level, it is trivially true, whereas on the second level, it is false but it would be huge if it was true. You can then use the trivially true level to bamboozle people into accepting the falsehood.
An example that Dennett gives of a deepity is, “love is only a word”. Clearly, ‘love’ definitely is a ‘word’ but that word represents a concept with many implications in the world. So it is true at a trivial level but false in the sense that most people will read it.
I think I’ve discovered an Education deepity: “All behaviour is communication.”
When I first came across this phrase, it struck me as manifestly false. My common understanding of an act of communication is that one person is attempting to pass information to another person or a group of people.
And this is indeed how people interpret ‘all behaviour is communication’. In the comments to a recent TES article, we read that, “All behaviour is communication. If there is a child disrupting the class it’s because the staff etc. are not listening to what the child is attempting to communicate to them.”
And this is why it is false. Poor behaviour can have many causes. For instance, when a thief steals something from a shop, he or she is not trying to communicate anything to anyone. Quite the reverse. A thief wishes to conceal the behaviour in order to not get caught.
Similarly, children who misbehave in class will do so for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it may indeed be about communicating something to the teacher. But other behaviours may be about establishing peer group positioning or they could be reactions to something that happened outside of class.
When I raise this objection on Twitter, I am usually told that communication is a much broader thing. Even a thief is communicating something about his or her state of mind, whether intentionally or not. In this sense, all behaviour is communication because all behaviour imparts information (provided we observe it).
I’m not sure I even agree on this level. If someone steals something, I can make inferences about their state of mind but I cannot know it. So I’m not even sure there is information there.
But let’s accept this widened definition of communication. What are the implications? Absolutely nothing. Everything anyone ever does can now be labelled as ‘communication’ and so, by applying to everything, it tells us nothing.
No, the power lies in the deepity. The wider definition of ‘communication’, the one that is trivially true, lends authority to a statement that is otherwise false.
That’s why, “All behaviour is communication,” has become a mantra for so many people.