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Ellipses

I’ve always believed in celebrating the accidental mispronunciation of a word rather than mocking or deriding it.

Such accidents are usually an indication of the mispronouncer having learned a new word in a book, and after determining its meaning, having decided to make it a proper part of their vocabulary. In some instances, it may even be an indication that they’re speaking an entirely new language, and all the subtleties of that language (of which there are many in English) have yet to become second-nature for them.

Both are examples of someone filling in gaps in their understanding and setting out beyond the familiar, beyond the comfortable, to experiment, iterate, and make mistakes. They’re planting flags, pitching tents, and weathering the sometimes unforgiving elements in hopes of someday making it familiar and friendly and less threatening to newcomers.

It’s no small task, forcing oneself into the unknown. And much of the world will forever remain beyond what we can point at and accurately name.

It strikes me that, although there’s not much that can be done about the difficulties surrounding such expeditions—difficulties which are, arguably, part of why we venture out beyond our familiar intellectual terrain to begin with—there is quite a lot of room for improvement in how we expand our collective understanding of the spaces we already occupy. Of ensuring that we have steady footing that makes us feel confident enough to explore further, because we’ve come to know our existing stomping grounds so thoroughly.

One barrier that I’ve noticed in all types of missive, particularly those created by people who know their stuff, is the use of what I’m going to refer to here as intellectual ellipses.

An ellipsis is the ‘…’ punctuation that we use as filler for words that, we assume, can be safely left out. The context of the sentence, we decide, remains intact even without that chunk of text that we replace with a trio of dots. These omissions, though often benign, can become malignant if we’re trying to communicate ideas outside of our existing circles.

Which is to say: if we assume knowledge in others that we ourselves consider to be obvious, we’ll regularly leave some people who might wish to listen to us, to consider our ideas, out in the cold. This effect is often unintentional, and even somewhat easily remedied by the intended recipient: the language we’re using, the history we’re referencing, and a more complete context could be Googled, and perhaps even understood, with a few minutes effort. But the friction of that absence can be all that it takes to make our ideas seem inaccessible to those who might wish to understand our perspective, or become more educated on a topic in which we have some expertise to share.

These ellipses, as I’m using the word, might take the shape of actual, literal gaps in conversations, left blank because we all surely know what’s meant so there’s no need to clarify. It might take the shape of lingo that’s understood within the field, but completely opaque to those on the outside. And perhaps most common in political discussions, we’ll often work presumptions into our thinking, expressing ideas and facts in the context of information that is perhaps completely unknown or known in a different way by an outsider.

If you’re telling a friend who watches a different news network why a particular international trade deal is a dreadful idea, but your explanation is predicated on the knowledge of what trade deals are, how they intersect with international politics and governmental spheres of influence, and why, therefore, a hit to exports may be a worthwhile short-term loss, then you’re unlikely to convince anyone of anything, much less understand why they don’t agree with you. The assumptions being made are too many, and potentially too biased, foundationally.

Ideally we all have perfect information and a common set of facts to work from, but that’s not the case in the real world. We have to assume that in every communication situation, the people on the other end of what we’re saying are coming from a different place than we are, and seeing the same things from a slightly, or radically different angle.

I’ve written before about how I think we’re going to need more bridges—publications, people, philosophical connective tissue—in the coming years, because our ability to isolate ourselves intellectually has become so great, and our capacity to speak past one another, working from completely different sets of data, and with completely different understandings of how the world works, has become such a monumental hurdle to leap every time we engage with someone who might teach us something, or whom we might teach.

The solutions we currently have to this are few and less impactful than we require, because many of the media entities and conversational modes we’ve adopted do seem to be predicated on speaking to someone who knows what we know, or who has access to the same on-the-fly facts that we do, and what’s more, who trust those facts.

We cannot assume this. And we cannot assume that even the most beautifully produced, wonderfully well-worded missives will be seen, consumed, understood, and taken seriously, because the conviction that we are worth paying attention to, spending time with, and trusted has to be earned. We have to communicate thoroughly in order to communicate at all.

We need ellipses. They’re necessary, and often wildly beneficial. The shorthand and symbols used in mathematics are required because expressing the same ideas without those symbols, using other language, would be even more cumbersome then attempting to thoroughly and completely explain the Portuguese word saudade—which means something like an immense, nostalgic or even remorseful longing for someone or something that is long gone, and perhaps will not, or cannot, ever return, and which as a result makes one feel both happy and sad, tearful that they are not with you or you are not there, and softly smiling because they exist, and you have experienced them—in another language, every time you wish to express that feeling.

The ability to shorthand allows us to go deeper into subjects that matter and increase our perception of the world. Communicating more clearly and accessibly allows us to share the fundamentals with others, so that they, then, might also explore those deeper levels with you.

I think we’ll see a lot of solutions to this issue in the coming years. Many of them will no doubt be based on new combinations of technologies and trends that already exist, while others will emerge from entirely new inventions and inclinations.

Are you reaching anyone beyond those who already agree with you? Who already think like you? If not, is that what you hope to accomplish? Is there a way to project your voice farther, to more people, to a wider variety of people? Is it possible to expound on what you’re doing, what you’re making, in some new way that hasn’t seemed worth the effort in the past, because surely everyone already knows where you’re coming from, what facts you’re working from, who you are and what you represent?

These are questions worth asking, I think, whether or not you plan on expanding beyond your existing circle. We’re more connected now than ever before, for better and for worse. I think the potential for self-awareness and personal growth alone makes considering (and if warranted, adjusting) one’s ellipses a worthwhile exercise.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.