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General semantics and effective communication.

Definitions of Communication and General Semantics

Allen Louis says: "Communication is the sum of all the things a person does when he wants to create an understanding in the mind of another. It involves a systematic and continuous process of telling, listening and understanding." (1) Groff Conklin says, "Effective communication depends not so much on what is said as why and how it is said."(2) V.D. Singh defines communication as follows:
  The process of conveying and receiving ideas and
  information. It takes place through a mutually shared
  and understood system of symbols, i.e. a language, and
  is embedded in a context and situation.

  The message communicated is appropriate to the occasion,
  the addresser-addressee relationship and the subject of

  The act of communication follows linguistic rules, discourse
  rules, and social conventions. The process being interactive,
  the act of communication may go beyond simple receiving, and
  include understanding and conveying implications and overtones.
  In addition to spoken and written messages, communication may
  also include messages conveyed by gestures, signals, body
  language, and non-verbal sounds. Success of communication
  depends on its outcome, and not necessarily on the correctness
  of the language used. (3)

  General Semantics is defined as:

  a general theory of evaluation which takes into account the
  interrelations among: what is happening in ourselves and the
  world around us, how we get our information about those
  happenings, how we talk about such information, and how we
  behave: an up-to-date, scientifically-based applied
  epistemology. (4)

In General Semantics, "Communication may be regarded as a game in which the speaker and listener (writer and reader) struggle against the possibilities of confusion". (5) As John. H. Bens says, "The English teacher's trade is communication and language is the tool." As a teacher of communicative English, one proposes to study the relationship between General Semantics and effective communication.


The purpose of this article is to discuss how one can transform oneself using the formulations of General Semantics and empower oneself to communicate clearly, effectively, and confidently and have a mature, broad outlook. Some of the strategies for effective communication discussed are awareness--be it is behavior awareness (consciousness of abstracting), verbal awareness, or sensory awareness, listening, extensional orientation, the General Semantics device called "dating," and the scientific attitude to use communication styles that are powerful and that enable us to take control of our lives. Many women seem to hit the glass ceiling in their work lives because they use weak language. This article also attempts to discuss personal time binding regarding how one can transform one's inner speech to use--as Phyllis Minden says, the language of success and to shed the language of weakness. (6)

"Powerful thinking precedes powerful language." (7) Alfred Korzybski once said that just as you can bring a horse to water but cannot make it drink, you can bring a boy to college but you cannot make him "think." In his work on General Semantics, Korzybski offers instruction on how to think using the non-Aristotelian training that is based on asymmetrical relations and other relations of an infinite-valued nature in contrast to the evaluation based on symmetrical relations of "identity" and partial identity represented by the two-valued "laws of thought during the Aristotelian period (384-322 BC), and also the literal identification as the one-valued standard of evaluation during the Primitive period." (8) As Guthrie E. Janssen says,
  Aristotelian formulations have stultified the neurosemantic
  reactions and hold back cultural development. ... Communication
  in the broadest sense is at a minimum. (9)

  Allen Walker Read remarks:

  Strenuous efforts are made in the teaching of general
  semantics to have a deep influence on the functioning
  of the nervous system, because talking the theory is not
  enough. In fact, the result should be the re-structuring
  of our habitual reactions. Korzybski regarded his work as
  a system of evaluation, and hence appropriate ethical behavior
  should be the result." (10)


One of the key notions in General Semantics is awareness. Behavior awareness or consciousness of abstracting refers to the way we select or abstract while relating to the world around us. As Kenneth G. Johnson says, "Many arguments and conflicts can be avoided by being aware that we abstract and that different people abstract in different ways." (11)

Verbal awareness refers to being deliberate in one's talking and listening. As Kenneth. G. Johnson says,
  We live in a world of ever-changing uniqueness that we map
  by using a language of static categories; therefore we have
  many opportunities for missed communication and misunderstanding.

Susan Presby Kodish refers to signal reactions and symbol reactions. (13) Signal reactions are conditioned responses and symbol reactions are conditional responses, which require one to delay one's response and thus one can speak deliberately the language of success and avoid speaking the language of weakness. Phyllis Mindell says, -Control is key to the grammar of success. To the extent that you think about your language choices and control your responses, you can master any complex situation." (14)

Sensory awareness refers to experiencing life at the silent, unspeakable levels. Bruce Kodish writes about turning down the volume of the internal chatter and emptying one's cup to be aware of new signals. (15) Also, verbal rest enables one to communicate effectively when one has to do so.

The access to communication is listening. As Bruce Kodish says, one must observe and listen "to what the other person is saying, not only to their words but also to their tone, gestures etc." (16) Albert Mehrabian who has studied nonverbal communication points out that the spoken word conveys only seven percent of the message while a larger part of any message is communicated through vocal and visual elements. Mehrabian attributes 38 percent of communication to vocal elements that include the quality, speed, loudness, pitch, and intonation of the voice, and 55 percent of communication to visual elements that include gestures, postures, distance, smell, and touch. (17) Hence it is essential to cultivate effective nonverbal communication skills as well and have an extensional orientation which in General Semantics refers to "an attitude towards living which involves flexibly orienting ourselves primarily to non-verbal happenings and facts; includes the ability to use intentional approaches when appropriate." (18) Peter. F. Drucker says that the most important thing in communication is hearing what is not said.
  Bruce Kodish remarks that,

  We can also listen to how we talk to ourselves and others.
  Quietly observing our own speech involves another level of
  internal silence that can lead to useful insights about
  ourselves and more fruitful ways of acting. (19)

We must be conscious of the automatic recurring dialogue in our mind. What we achieve is linked to what we say to ourselves. Negative internal chatter creates negative time-binding environment. Susan Presby Kodish says,
  Often we experience tension and a sense of feeling stuck
  with our situation because we fail to recognize that we
  keep recycling our thoughts about a situation without
  checking out how accurately they reflect what is going
on in that situation. (20)

So it is important to manage what we think and create a positive time-binding environment. As Korzybski says, "If we use languages of a structure non-similar to the world and our nervous system, our verbal predictions are not verified empirically. We cannot be 'rational' or adjusted." (21)

The Language of Success

Phyllis Mindell mentions the principles and rules of powerful language that works such as using appropriate subjects rather than "I" or "you," avoiding hedges, using active voice and deleting vague modifiers. Some examples of language structures in the grammar of success are given below.

Replace "I" Statements with Focused Subject Statements

Phyllis Mindell says, "The mature thinker, the successful businesswoman, the productive person is capable of looking at and speaking about the world without referring to herself at all." (22)

ORIGINAL: I have a problem with my secretary; he never gets to work on time.

QUICK FIX: My secretary has a problem; he never gets to work on time.

ALTERNATIVE 1: My secretary's lateness dogs his career.

ALTERNATIVE 2: Lateness remains a consistent problem for my secretary. (23)

Avoid Hedges

While pointing out that to hedge in language is to hide behind words, refuse to commit oneself, Phyllis Mindell says, "After the I statement, the hedge seems to be the most pervasive and destructive weak language form." (24)

PUNY HEDGE: I'd like to get the promotion, sort of...

ASSERTION: Please consider promoting me.

ALTERNATIVE: The promotion will benefit the whole department. (25)

Avoid the Verb "To Be" and Replace Passive Voice Verbs with Active Voice Verbs

Phyllis Mindell remarks, "Note that the passive voice verb always requires a version of the 'to be' verb. ..." (26) She adds, "The passive voice is a weak voice; it's also the voice of poor management. It reflects a world view without agents or clear responsibilities." (27)

ACTIVE: The team completed the project before the deadline.

PASSIVE: The project was completed before the deadline.

PASSIVE: The project was completed by the team before the deadline. (28)

Delete Vague Modifiers

Phyllis Mindell also stated, "Modifiers like very, really, many, and certainly work the same way hedges do, so use them only when they add vital information." (29)

VAGUE: I really, really want that job

PRECISE: I want that job. (30)

Use Action Verbs Rather Than the Verb "To Be"

Phyllis Mindell also suggests using action verbs rather than the verb "to be": "Action verbs energize your language, make it lively, and bring you authority. ...unaware of the benefits of action verbs, businesswomen resort to the weak 'to be' verbs which can bloat and sap the strength of both spoken and written language." (31)

PASSIVE: One of my biggest challenges is to make my writing clear, concise, and simple for my target audience.

ACTION: I aim to write clearly, concisely, and simply ... (32)

General Semantics also stresses the importance of E Prime--"a form of English which eliminates all uses of the verb 'to be'". (33) Phyllis Mindell mentions other weak grammar forms to be dropped such as tag questions, hypercorrectness, and cluttering clauses. She points out that just as one has to learn powerful words and grammatical forms, so one must learn powerful nonverbal moves that bring success. (34)


For effective communication, we must be aware that as T. S. Eliot said,
  "What we know of other people is only our memory of the
  moments during which we knew them. And they have changed
  since then. ... At every meeting we are meeting a
  stranger." (35)

Hence we can use the General Semantics device 'dating' which "serves as a reminder that things are constantly changing." (36) A person X2000 is not the same as [X.sub.2013]. As George Bernard Shaw said, "The only man who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measure anew each time he sees me, whilst all the rest go on with their old measurements and expect them to fit me." (37)

Thus, a knowledge of General Semantics and the practical application of it will aid effective communication.

Notes and References

(1.) Quoted in Sehgal, M.K. and Vandana Khetarpal. Business Communication. New Delhi: Excel Books, 2006: 3.

(2.) Quoted in Bhatnagar, Nitin and Mamta Bhatnagar. Communicative English for Engineers and Professionals. New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley (India), 2010: 1.

(3.) Singh, V.D. Language Learning, Teaching and Testing: A Companion. New Delhi: Foundation Books, 2008: 34.

(4.) Kodish, Susan Presby and Bruce I. Kodish. Drive Yourself Sane-Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics. 3rd ed. Pasedena, CA: Extensional Publishing, 2001: 213.

(5.) Johnson, Kenneth. G. General Semantics: An Outline Survey. 3rd rev. Fort Worth, TX: The Institute of General Semantics, 2004: 2.

(6.) Mindell, Phyllis. A Woman's Guide to the Language of Success: Communicating with Confidence and Power. Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995.

(7.) Ibid. 28.

(8.) Quoted in Economides, Antony, M. A Non-Aristotelian Study of Philosophy. Lakeville, Connecticut: Institute of General Semantics, 1947: 4.

(9.) Ibid. v.

(10.) Read, Allen Walker. "The semiotic aspect of Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics." Et cetera: Spring (1983), 20.

(11.) Johnson, Kenneth. G. 19.

(12.) Ibid. 9.

(13.) Presby, Susan. "Semantic Reactions."

General Semantics Bulletin, Number 51, (1984): 113-114.

(14.) Mindell, Phyllis. 17.

(15.) Kodish, Bruce. I. "Emptying your cup: Non-Verbal awareness and General Semantics."

Et cetera. Spring (1998): 19.

(16.) Ibid. 20.

(17.) Dhanvel, S.P. English and Soft Skills. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan, 2010: 108.

(18.) Kodish, Susan Presby and Bruce I. Kodish. 213.

(19.) Kodish, Bruce. I. 20.

(20.) Kodish, S.P. "Resolving tensions with General Semantics."Et cetera, Summer (1989): 143.

(21.) Quoted in Economides, Antony, M.16.

(22.) Mindell, Phyllis. 20.

(23.) Ibid. 20.

(24.) Ibid. 25.

(25.) Ibid. 26.

(26.) Ibid. 30.

(27.) Ibid. 32.

(28.) Ibid. 30.

(29.) Ibid. 33.

(30.) Ibid. 34.

(31.) Ibid. 40.

(32.) Ibid. 41.

(33.) Kodish, Susan Presby and Bruce, I.Kodish. 212.

(34.) Mindell, Phyllis. 111.

(35.) Johnson, Kenneth. G. 12.

(36.) Ibid. 12.

(37.) Ibid. 11.

Geetha Bhasker is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Bangalore University, Bangalore, India.
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Author:Bhasker, Geetha
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Essay
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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