These days we tend to focus on using communication to influence people. For example, public speaking books emphasize the skills needed to influence listeners. Public relations and advertising practitioners assume that the market value of communication is related to its impact on others. Modern politics, journalism, preaching, and teaching are similarly focused on impact. Who wants to invest time and energy in crafting and delivering ineffective messages?
As the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle put it in Rhetoric, a skilled public communicator learns how to use every available means of persuasion in a given situation. In other words, public discourse is essentially persuasion, getting others to think, believe, or do something. Ancient Roman orator Cicero largely agreed, although he focused on the power of communication to delight and inform as well as persuade others.
Clearly messages don’t have to be blatantly persuasive in order to impact listeners, viewers, and readers. Most of us enjoy delightful persuasion, such as TV commercials during the annual SuperBowl coverage.
But there’s more to the nature of human communication than good or bad, serious or playful, impact.
One aspect of human communication not so fully appreciated today is ethos—the image of the communicator as perceived by the audience. Nowadays we talk about ethos as “persona” or “public image.” Politicians are particularly cognizant of their ethos. They realize that a positive ethos can translate into popularity and eventually votes.
The ancient Greek and Roman orators recognized that there is something about the human communicator as communicator that becomes part of the message and thereby part of the message’s impact. That “something” is largely personal, a result of the nature of humans as persons, not mere animals. Philosophers and theologians have long speculated on the “nature of human nature,” using terms like “soul” and “essence” to try to understand our distinct humanness as person-communicators.
When we listen to the radio, read a blog, view a movie, or converse with a friend, we implicitly assume that we are connecting with other people, not just transmitting impersonal (or “person-less”) messages. We assume that people have crafted the messages and intend to accomplish something by so doing. Like the wizard of Oz, someone is behind the scenes, casting images, pulling the verbal and nonverbal strings. Of course that “someone” could be a non-profit organization or a for-profit corporation, a single individual or a creative group of artists. It might be a preacher or an essayist. Still, we assume that one or more characters are the source of human messages. Meaningful messages cannot create themselves.
This assumption is so powerful that it leads many people to posit that there are personal communicators behind just about everything, from apparent UFOs to the physical universe. People see Martians in the shadows of Mars photos.
The ancient Hebrew poets imagined that the hills “clap their hands” and that the “mountains declare.” They believed that a personal God could speak via any “medium,” even a glorious sundown or the death of a friend. God’s character—His ethos—is thereby revealed in these messages from afar, suggesting the Creator’s majesty, power, and glory.
One interesting way of grasping the personal-ness of human communication, then, is to look at a messenger’s character, not just to consider the intended or unintended impact his or her messages. Nowadays we often refer to a “character” as someone who is a bit different from others: “Uncle Charlie is a real character.” Sometimes we even use the word “character” to describe non-human creatures such as a beloved pet.
My family once owned a one-of-a-kind dog, an endearing character with his own quirks. For instance, he howled only when a particular pair of female dogs was outside at one of our neighbors’ homes. Nothing else elicited the lovelorn mutt’s howls; no other dogs or people or squirrels or chipmunks or sirens or anything would cause him to wail like a suitor who had just lost his only love. He was a character. Because of some of his other traits, too, I called him the “beast of the field.”
In the history of Western culture, however, the concept of “character” also meant a tendency to think or act particular ways. Character was a way of defining a person’s nature or attitude, the “qualities” of their person. For instance, today we talk about someone’s distinct personality. Occasionally cultural critics will even refer to the character of a nation or group. We assume that cultures can collectively act, like people, as distinct persons. When they do, they create a shared ethos both among themselves and outsiders. I recall asking a Russian what he thought of English-speaking persons in general and North Americans in particular. He chuckled and said that Americans’ use of the English language sounds like barking dogs especially to those Russians who do not know English. That got me thinking about my own stereotypes of French and Italian speaker—among others.
What would happen to our public and private communication if we focused not just on communications skills but also on character? What intrinsically good virtues would we want to promote? Patience? Empathy? Honesty? Courage? Love? Kindness?
For years I have asked my current and former college students about their college professors. Who are or were their favorite professors. Why? I don’t ask for the names of specific teachers (Maybe confidentiality can be a worthy virtue!). Interestingly, the students have always focused primarily on the character of their professors. They really appreciated teachers who cared about them personally. My students say that while in college they were willing to be very charitable toward professors who are not most skilled teachers as long as the instructors demonstrated that they cared about their learners. These students were even willing to help their teachers become better-skilled instructors when they sensed that the professors cared.
In the Hebrew and especially the later Christian traditions, this kind of charitable caring, caritas, was defined by love, not influence. A caring person treated others as she or he would want to be treated. In the language of Jesus, the caring communicator loves his or her neighbor as self.
So there’s a clue about the character of communicators. Truly distinct characters in today’s world recognize that:
caritas = character
The best ethos is not just image, but soul. To be a person of character is to personally care. Character communicates. Sometimes blessedly so.