Everything I Need to Know About Communication, I Learned at the Movies

Week #4 of my tribute to the movies, in honour of the upcoming Oscars.

Wicked one-liners, great come-backs, perfect put-downs.  The movies are full of people who say the right thing in just the right way.  What wouldn’t we give to be that quick on our feet?  Well, if our feet are failing us, we can always borrow the work of screenwriters.  Look at the dialogue that’s moved into our collective consciousness; consider the phrases we use with confidence even if we never saw the movie.

Annoyed with someone?  Inspector Harry Callahan, Dirty Harry to his friends, helps you out.  You’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky?  Well, do ya, punk?

Annoyed with someone you love?  Rhett Butler gives you the polite way to be Gone with the Wind: Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Have to break bad news to the boss?  Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell shows you how to make the ultimately nonchalant call to the office: Houston, we have a problem.

Of course we can’t always use lines from the movies: sometimes we have to speak for ourselves, and that’s generally where the trouble starts.  What we got here…is a failure to communicate, said the Captain, Road Prison 36 in Cool Hand Luke.  We don’t want to fail at communicating, so let’s do more than lift lines and let the movies teach us something about the underlying principles of communication.     

Keep it short and simple, like the Terminator in his namesake movie: I’ll be back.

Simple needn’t be crude, not even in an insult that’s As Good As It Gets at taking our breath away.  Think of Melvin Udall verbally disemboweling the receptionist who ingenuously asked him, How do you write women so well? His answer?  I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.

Stay calm: laconic is good.  I’ll be very surprised if our suspect is from Brainerd. So said Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, a detective from a small Minnesota town, not even blinking when confronted with a hitman-style triple execution worthy of New Jersey.

Understatement is better.  He chose….poorly. Thus spake the Grail Knight about Walter Donovan’s hideously bad choice of the wrong chalice in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Always speak to your audience.  Assuming too much or too little knowledge leads to surprises, much as Barbossa surprised Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl: I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your request.  Means ‘no.’

Surprise is a principle of war and when used in conversation has much the same effect.  That’s a knife.  Who can forget Mick “Crocodile” Dundee pulling that knife out from under his jacket, or the grin that went with it?

Preparation matters, maybe even more than profundity, as Ebby Calvin LaLoosh finally came to appreciate in Bull DurhamA good friend of mine used to say, “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”  Think about that for a while.

Grammar matters too, even though most of us don’t have a Clue about it.

Mrs. White: He had threatened to kill me in public.

Ms. Scarlett: Why would he want to kill you in public?

Wadsworth: I think she meant, he threatened in public to kill her.

If regular communication is tough, cross-cultural communication is even harder.  You know, I don’t know what they taught you in France, but rude and interesting are not the same thing. It might take a French Kiss to overcome some communication problems, as Kate found out.

Sometimes, however, our biggest challenge is just to recognize that what we’re doing isn’t working.  Showing people a drawing of a circle and saying, You know, for kids, didn’t help Norville Barnes explain the hula hoop to anyone in The Hudsucker Proxy.  But can anyone or anything really explain the hula hoop?

When something isn’t working, the good news is that there are lots of ways to say anything, as the pet shop customer made eminently clear in And Now For Something Completely Different‘E’s not pinin’!  ‘E’s passed on!  This parrot is no more!  He has ceased to be!  ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker!  ‘E’s a stiff! And so on, and so on, until, finally, This is an ex-parrot.

With all the things we want to say, and all the ways there are to say them, it’s no wonder we are plagued by information overload.  Even the inexhaustibly relentless Inigo Montoya in A Princess Bride found that less can be more: Let me ‘splain.  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up. Deciding what’s important can be the most important thing we do.  And I learned it at the movies.

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6 Comments

  1. Marion Neiman

    On communication (but not from the movies) one of my favourite quotes is:

    I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.
    — Robert McCloskey, State Department spokesman (attributed)

    Isn’t that the way it always is?

  2. What’s also important in communication…precision/humour pays and pays off. Matt Stone, the co-creator of the hideous South Park TV show said, “People don’t know this, but you receive one Emmy for every thousand fart jokes.”
    I also heard that for every great “one-liner” that gets a big laugh in a sit-com, the writer gets a bonus. In the 80s it was $1000. This must have been before laugh-tracks.

  3. steven

    Wikipedia says laugh tracks were invented on a 1948 radio show, and gives examples of TV shows with laugh tracks in the 1960s, including The Munsters and The Beverly Hillbillies.

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