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Watch Your Language: Words that Promote Understanding

“What’s wrong with telling visitors that this is an excellent example of naturalist painting and reveals the artist’s command of color, light, and the reflective properties of water?’

Everything I’ve said is correct.”

Docents are often puzzled to learn that communicating in this manner may be counterproductive. After all, the information, and in some cases the words themselves, were provided by curators or scholars.

The reason statements like the one above are inappropriate for most tours is complex, but revolves around the difference between telling and teaching, and the manner in which ideas and insights are communicated in each case.

Text panels tell; docents teach. Each has a different objective and requires a different approach to communication. Telling serves to transfer specific facts, information, and judgments about a collection, exhibition, object, or life form. It is communication from a definite perspective, determined by such factors as the discipline and orientation of the institution, context, and the insights and background of the panel’s author.

Teaching serves to impart skills, especially those of observation and analysis. The goal is to enhance visitors’ abilities to obtain and construct their own meaning from collections, exhibitions, objects, or life forms. The emphasis is weighted more toward practicing behaviors and problem solving than toward accumulating and memorizing isolated facts.

Whether in an art, history, or science institution, the majority of people taking docent-led tours lack the developed background and understanding to place definitive statements, such as those used in “telling,” in an appropriate and productive context. Visitors may become confused or disheartened by that form of communication because they see things differently, or because they don’t understand the criteria or rationale used.

For instance, when visitors are told that something is an “excellent example, ” as in the statement above, they may be at a loss to understand why. The word “excellent” conveys a value judgment. Value judgments are determinations of relative worth based on subjective criteria. Understanding a value judgment requires a shared awareness of the standards by which something was judged and the particular reasons it was determined to be superior. These assumptions, however, exceed most visitors’ level of awareness and comprehension.

Look again at the statement above from a visitor’s point-of-view. What is meant by having “command” of such things as color or light? Why would a painting, which might seem poorly rendered or splotchy, demonstrate mastery? This statement fails to communicate in a manner that visitors can verify or understand.

Speaking with value judgments or assumed points-of-view, as one does when “telling,” puts many visitors at a distinct disadvantage. Some will react by accepting what they are told without comprehending it; others may simply dismiss what they’re told without giving it appropriate consideration. In either scenario, visitors wind up responding to what is .said, rather than to what they should be seeing and examining. The result is not only miscommunication, but missed opportunities for learning and growing. In his book Language in Thought and Action, S.I. Hayakawa categorized words into three distinct types useful for controlling communication and comprehension. The first category he termed report words. Report words are those that describe what can be seen, heard, felt, or otherwise verified. They are accurate descriptions of observations and can be confirmed by others. For example, stating that “the grandfather clock in the entry hall stands over six feet tall, is made of mahogany wood, and chimes on the hour” uses report words.

The second category is inferential words. Inferential words make statements about the unknown based on what is known. For example, stating that “crocodiles are well suited for life in the water” is an inference. It may or may not be true. If, however, this inference is followed by report words, communication is clarified. A verifying report statement might be that “crocodiles have eyes and nostrils higher than the rest of their heads for seeing and breathing while floating in the water.”

The third group is judgmental words. They convey approval or disapproval. They are words such as “good” and “superior,” or “poor” and “bad.” Judgmental words inhibit understanding unless report words, which state the reasons and criteria, are put forth. For example, saying “this was a terrific advance in aircraft’ tells the listener little. However, if that statement is followed by “… because this carrier used less fuel, could fly longer distances, and could hold more passengers,” the communication is clear and judgment’s meaning is understood.

The use of report words to ensure accurate transfer of meaning does not only pertain to docents. Visitors should be asked, in a non-threatening and non-challenging manner, to reference their ideas and opinions with report words. This not only allows docents to monitor and respond appropriately to visitors” thoughts and observations, but also allows visitors to communicate more precisely with each other.

Hayakawa suggests that in every case where inference or judgment is made, report words follow to clarify the “mental leap” between what can be confirmed and what has been implied. This not only improves communication, it teaches visitors how to use and develop their observation skills to extract information, and how to better comprehend their personal responses and decisions.

Docents, interpreters, and others who teach must be vigilant communicators, working to ensure that language serves to clarify what they (and visitors) are saying. Unlike the process of writing, which can be reworked and refined, the verbal communication taking place between docents and visitors is dynamic and fluid. The luxury of being able to second guess, to rework, or edit is unavailable. Docents are obliged, therefore, to make certain that inferences and judgments, which are subject to a wide latitude of misinterpretations, are always referred back to report words so that everyone learns and understands what is being communicated.

Alan Gartenhaus is the publishing editor of this newsletter. He has been the recipient of an Alden B. Dow Creativity Fellowship, an award of special recognition for contributions to children’s television from the Taft Broadcasting Company, and an Award for Meritorious Service from the Smithsonian Institution. In addition to writing, he provides workshops for docents and classroom teachers on interpretative teaching techniques, creativity and its enhancement, and questioning strategies.

Gartenhaus, Alan “Teachers have Great Expectations,” The Docent Educator 1.1 (Winter 1991): 2-3.


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