The True Meaning Behind Words

When was the last time you heard what someone really said to you? When was the last time you consciously identified the inflection in their voice? For example, your girlfriend is on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor. You walk in and ask, “What are you doing?” “What does it look like I’m doing?” she snorts. Her reply is laced with acid. She doesn’t even look at you. Did you hear what she really said? She was clearly telling you that she thought your question was stupid. In order to listen to someone in an engaged way, psychologists have long recognized that you must understand not only the words but the subtext.

According to an often-cited theory by Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles:

  • Only seven percent of what we communicate are the actual words that we speak.
  • As much as 93% of what we communicate is non-verbal communication (i.e., body language).

As an actor, this comes as no surprise to me. Stella Adler, the legendary actress and acting instructor was famously quoted as saying, “Acting is in everything but the words.”

Let’s begin in the simplest place. We speak with an instrument called the “voice.” The sound of a person’s voice – including the tone, syntax, and inflection – reveals more information about what is being said and the person saying it than the words themselves. Now for a dose of truth serum. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’d have to admit that we don’t always say what we mean. Nor do we always mean what we say. For example, begin with the words, “I am the happiest person in the world.” You can say these words like a computer – slow, mechanical, and devoid of any emotion – and they will be thoroughly unconvincing. Or, you can deliver these same words as if your fondest dream has come true. This demonstrates how a single phrase can be open to different interpretations depending on how it is delivered.

All of the unspoken words are the subtext. Subtext is the meaning underneath the lines. There is no better example of subtext then the first line uttered by “Danny” in the play, “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.” The play begins in a rundown bar in the Bronx, where two of society’s rejects, Danny and Roberta, strike up a halting conversation over their beer. Danny is a brooding, self-loathing young man who resorts more to violence than reason. Roberta is a divorced, guilt-ridden young woman whose troubled teenage son is now being cared for by her parents. Danny, whose fellow truck drivers call him “the animal,” seems incapable of tender emotion, while Roberta is distrustful of men in general.

As Roberta sits alone in the bar drinking her beer and whiling away the hours crushing the pretzels in her bowl, Danny enters. He is bleeding from the fresh fight scars on his face and furious with the world. He is is ready to pounce if anyone so much as looks at him wrong. They stare each other down.

The first words out of Danny’s mouth is, “How ’bout a pretzel?” The line is infused with all of the rage and bitterness of a man who has been battered, beaten, and pummeled and is craving peaceful solitude. The emotion behind this line conveys more than a five-page self-pity rant.

Acting instructor, Sanford Meisner uses two beautiful metaphors to demonstrate this dichotomy between words and the emotion underlying them:

“The text is like a canoe and the river on which it sits is the emotion. The text floats on the river. If the water of the river is turbulent, the words will come out like a canoe on a rough river. It all depends on the flow of the river which is your emotion. The text takes on the character of your emotion.” – Sanford Meisner

“An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words.” – Sanford Meisner

Great actors such as Marlon Brando and Rosemarie Dewitt epitomize what it means to convey more meaning through behavior than through words. Ms. Dewitt could convey more with one look than with twelve pages of dialogue.

It is for this reason that actors are trained to listen on a heightened level like a deer who hears the rustling of leaves and is put on alert that a hunter is nearby. When you are really listening to someone, you will pick up nuances in the tone of that person’s voice. You will learn to respond to voice inflection, volume, physical mannerisms, rhythm and musicality of speech, and the specifics of behavioral responses. After all, we listen with all of our senses, not just one.

If there is any doubt, I encourage you to take part in an exercise originating from the creative world of acting that teaches the power of sound and how the sound of your voice conveys more meaning than the actual words.

Pretend that you are a politician that just won a hotly-contested election and that you are getting ready to deliver your acceptance speech before hundreds of your supporters.

Could you match the pitch, pace, tone, voice inflection, and emotion of your acceptance speech if the actual words – i.e., the script – were replaced by the letters of the alphabet? In other words, you are restricted to using the letters of the alphabet to strike the same vibe of the written speech, beginning with the letter “A” and ending with the letter “Z.” Were you able to transmit the same feelings through the letters as you did through the words? Were you able to hear the sounds of joy, happiness, confidence, and justice? Was the sound and melody the same? Would an onlooker objectively be able to guess the type of speech you were giving?

Let’s apply this exercise to the courtroom. Suppose that you had to substitute numbers for the text of your closing argument. In other words, replace the text with the numbers, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10” but keep the same emotional undercurrent that exists when you speak the actual words. By emotional undercurrent, I’m referring to pitch, vocal inflection, sentence length, and pauses.

Begin counting. What does it sound like? Does it sound monotone, flat, and mechanical – like a metronome – or is it emotionally riveting?

While challenging, the benefits of this exercise far outweigh its burdens. As Gerry Spence so eloquently explains:

“Where before you spoke without much awareness of the sounds of your voice, now you will become acutely attuned to the sounds, not only the sounds of feelings, but the music, the rhythm, the power of the crescendo and the whisper and of silence – the power of the music.”

Essentially, you’ve learned what is meant by the musical composition of argument. Listening not just to the words but to the sounds of the words adds a completely new layer of meaning that makes the true meaning of the words inescapable.

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