Three Ways to Create Meaning

There are a lot of purposes behind communication. It can be informative: “You have a meeting at 3:00pm.” It can be argumentative: “I think we should or should not allow gay people to marry.” It can be interesting: “The cost of making pennies and nickels has nearly doubled over the past several years. This means it cost more to make them then they are worth once in our pocket (or lost in our couch).”

In all of these (and others) communication is trying to create meaning.

When we think about creating meaning in communication, you must realize that meaning does not stand by itself. Meaning is always nestled within something else. Meaning is a vapor that is ambivalent unless it can be captured and contained within some kind of housing. 

The art of communication is housing meaning within words, sentences, elements of speech, etc. Communication is powerful when we effectively house meaning in a unit that is accessible to the audience.

Let’s consider our first example: “You have a meeting at 3:00pm.” What would it look like to make this statement more meaningful?

The first route I want to consider for housing meaning is in an academic house. It might look a little bit like this:

“Consider this enigma. The problem with any schedule is that one must systematically and categorically arrange their time to balance both their personal and professional lives. As such, it is imperative to note that although one might wish to have a respite from their labors, any hopes for a respite will end at precisely 3 o’clock in the afternoon.”

In this example, meaning is housed within complex sentences and vocabulary. One who can comprehend this paragraph is delighted by the synapses that go off in their brain as they work to comprehend a rather simple truth in a complex way. At the heart of this, you have a meeting at 3:00pm, but it’s made interesting and thus has greater meaning. The meaning does not come from the 3:00pm meeting date, but from the housing that communicated that reality.

One can see this type of meaning-creating in scholarly books. One might argue that professors increase the value of their words, by decreasing the readability of them. Many times this is necessary for understanding complex thoughts; other times this is just smart people being lazy.  This method is important (and useful) for those who find this mode accessible.

The second route for creating meaning is in proverbial house. Consider this same information from this perspective.

“There is a time and a place for everything. Some days are meant for living and some days are meant for dying. Some days are meant for working and some days are meant for playing. Some days are meant for family and other days are meant for friends. And some days are a little of everything. Today is a good example of this diversity. I spend part of my day at work, part with my family, and part by myself. This is the rhythm of life. And I do not have to enjoy every moment, for every song has its downbeats. At exactly 3:00pm this rhythm will hit yet another downbeat as I begin the final meeting of the day—a meeting I would rather not be attend.”

In this example, meaning is captured in simple sentences that try to suggest profound truths. They are easy to understand, but you still walk away feeling like you learned something (or were reminded of something you already knew).

The most common place for this language is within sermons and books. When done well, both of these can captivate you with their understanding of the world by their use of simple wordplay.

Good preachers can create meaning using simple words; bad preachers try to create meaning using complex words within complex sentences that mean nothing to most of us.

There is a final route worth considering. Consider this final example:

“I’m not one to hate meetings. In fact, I typically love them. I look forward to them. I know this makes me a kind of unlikely person, but what can I say? I love getting together with other people and discussing what we’ve been working on; I love making plans for the future, and dreaming with my coworkers.

When I rolled out of bed at 8am, I was looking forward to my 3:00pm meeting. It had been on the calendar for weeks, and I am in charge of setting the pace for this meeting. But a lot can happen between 8:00am and 3:00pm. It turns out my mother has cancer. She was waiting for the tests to get back and they weren’t looking good.

Her tests got back this morning, and I found out about it at lunch.

I lost my appetite.

My mom lives on the other side of the country and so I plan to fly out tomorrow morning. But that means I need to finish the workday and get even more things covered in my 3:00pm meeting. I really just want to go home.”

Compare how you feel about the 3:00pm meeting after each example? Which one conjures up more emotion? More compassion? More significance? Which one is more meaningful?

Meaning can be housed in big words, or profound proverbs, but I think the best place to house meaning is in stories. Although private and intimate by nature, stories are truly the most assessable, public housing for meaning.

Can you think of other ways of housing meaning besides these three forms?


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