John Masterson: 'Are you a car horn or could you be a soulmate?'

Barking dog (stock image)

John Masterson

It is difficult to think of a mode of communication that is worse than a car horn. Apart from the rare occasions when it lets someone know exactly where you are and that if someone, or everyone, does not take immediate evasive action then you will meet by accident. Those occasions are very rare. Usually the sounding of the horn leaves a lot of people wondering who did what, and was it them, and which car was blowing the horn in any case. Everyone stops concentrating on what they are doing which is getting from A to B safely because some idiot has vented their frustration by telling everybody that he, it usually is a he, is annoyed about something or other, or perhaps just has a short fuse or got out the wrong side of the bed. Roundabouts are a favourite place for this behaviour.

I don't think the car horn can communicate anything more complicated than "I am here and I would like you to take notice of me". A dog barking tells you more. At least Fido tells you whether he wants food, a walk, or to be let out. The dog gets your attention and gives you the essential information that he wants to communicate and for you to act on.

In the past Irish drivers thought the horn was for saying goodbye to people who they had already said goodbye to. After much kissing and hugging the departing guests would get into the car and, as if to reassure the hosts that they had actually left, would beep the horn and wake up the neighbours. This beep cannot have communicated anything more complicated than "I am in the car and am probably over the limit". These days drawing attention to oneself in that circumstance is not wise. I think even sober drivers have somehow given up this nonsensical salutation.

Would we be better off if all horns in cars were disabled? I am not sure if a beep occasionally saves a life or an injury. But mostly it is a fairly useless form of communication.

The central part of any good communication is shared attention. The two people are focussed on the same thing. We speak to get another person's attention and to direct attention, and perhaps behaviour, in a particular direction. It may be fairly innocuous as in making a comment about a TV programme and bonding. It may have bigger consequences as in making a decision about where to go on holidays and when to press 'purchase' on the laptop. Or it may be an ongoing discussion as to how a child is doing in school. That is if you have two people in the frame. As we know even with two people talking misunderstandings are frequent. Add in a few more people, and the possibilities for confusion do not just multiply. They grow exponentially. Add in the many distractions that compete for our attention and you get "I don't remember saying that", followed by "well if you weren't watching the TV and scrolling on your phone at the same time you might remember things a bit better". Sometimes you have to pick your moment.

It is a truism that good communicators are good listeners. This it is the side of communication that often gets overlooked in situations where people are complaining that a partner or friend has reached the "we don't talk any more" stage.

In therapy people are often asked to feed back to the other person what they heard in their reply to keep things on track. It sounds artificial to almost regurgitate what you heard but is surprising how often you will spot a faulty communication. It is not a bad exercise to practice now and again. One thing it highlights is that grunts are not much better than car horns. "Yeah" often does not mean "I agree".

It is worth keeping communication habits in mind. When people talk of being soulmates, they mean a lot more than sharing important values and having a bit of chemistry. At the centre of it will be good communication.