Osmo Antero Wiio was an economist and member of the Finnish Parliament, but he is best known for “Wiio’s Laws of Communication.” In these, he laid down a rather humourous set of seven principles or laws (with some additional sub-points) that actually illustrate an important and serious truth — communication can be difficult. The message you are intending to send might not be the message which is received.
1. Communication usually fails, except by accident.
— If communication can fail, it will
— If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails
— If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there’s a misunderstanding
— If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails
2. If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximises the damage.
3. There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message.
4. The more we communicate, the worse communication succeeds.
— The more we communicate, the faster misunderstandings propagate
5. In mass communication, the important thing is not how things are but how they seem to be.
6. The importance of a news item is inversely proportional to the square of the distance.
7. The more important the situation is, the more probably you forget an essential thing that you remembered a moment ago.
Some of these are certainly reminiscent of Scriptural truths. Compare #4, for instance, with Proverbs 10:19 — “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise.”
We have all had the experience of telling someone something, and finding out that the message received is completely different than the one you stated. For preachers, this happens all the time. More than once, I’ve had someone tell me how much they appreciated the sermon, and especially when I made a particular statement (that I can’t remember saying at all). Years ago, in one of these cases, I went back and listened to the sermon to see if I really said it, and I didn’t. 🙂 I’m glad the sermon was helpful to them, but I wasn’t the one doing the helping that time!
Less happy are the times where someone remembers you saying something that you know you didn’t say, and they are angry with you. Maybe they’ve misheard your words, or maybe they heard the words accurately, but misinterpreted them to mean something completely different from what you intended. Hopefully, they’ll at least let you explain your meaning.
But sometimes, you never know there was the misunderstanding. They go away angry and thinking they understood you, and you go away either not knowing they were angry, or not knowing why they are angry.
If communication is that difficult between people who speak the same language, what about when there is a different language? Or when there is the same language, but vastly different backgrounds and experiences? I’ve written a couple of times before about my “plastic poppy” experience soon after moving to Scotland, but that’s just one example.
Once after I had been in Scotland for over ten years, I used an expression I had often used growing up, and suddenly realised that the person to whom I was speaking had gone completely quiet. Then it struck me, “I’ve never heard that expression used in Britain before.” And, “You know, Jon, some people here might be offended by that.” Well, it turned out the person to whom I was speaking wasn’t offended at all, but she’d also never heard the expression, and was just trying to process what in the world I had meant.
Different languages, different backgrounds, different life experiences, different figures of speech, different values, all these things interfere with communication. But what if the communication is coming from out of this world, not even from within the physical universe in which we dwell? What if it is a spiritual message? How can we hope to get it right, to understand it properly, if it is coming from the spiritual realm, a message from the Almighty?
If you have an important spiritual question, the answer is in the Bible, a message coming from the Almighty, from the spiritual realm. But we are earth-bound, finite, limited in intelligence and wisdom, limited in our spiritual and moral capabilities, trying to understand a message of infinite goodness, coming from the One who is omniscient, all-wise, and eternal. It’s another language, another realm, another dimension to the one in which we operate.
The Bible directly acknowledges this communication problem, the sheer “otherness” of God and spiritual matters, and it explains how we are able to understand.
I Corinthians 2:9-12
9 But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.
10 But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.
11 For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.
12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.
Yes, the things that God has prepared for those who love Him are spiritual things, and beyond normal human comprehension. But God has revealed them to us by His Spirit (verse 10), and we have received His Spirit so that we can know these things He has given and revealed to us.
Wiio’s laws are funny, but they convey a real truth — communication is not always easy, and often goes astray. Communication problems come because of human limitations and because of our innate sinfulness — we don’t listen well, we selfishly assume everyone is like us, and we are more concerned with what we think than we are with being sure of our hearing and speaking.
Those problems would absolutely devastate our ability to receive any communication from God, if He left us to it. But He didn’t. He put His message for us in human language, and the Holy Spirit came to dwell with us. He teaches us, helps us to understand and learn this message that He Himself has given us. It is through that Spirit “that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.”
When the Holy Spirit communicates His Word, it is not right to say that “communication usually fails, except by accident.” He is the One who gave us those words in the Bible, and He is the One who helps us to understand them. For anyone who is truly willing to hear, His communication will never fail, by accident or otherwise.