Communication is About a Common World

As we make friends with someone we usually get a better sense of what their words mean. We get a sense of our friend’s internal world. We get a sense of where their words come from.

I was being interviewed for a job in a nursing home. I had never worked in a job like this before and so couldn’t really say much.

I got the job (for better and worse) but that is not what this post is about. It is about an example one of my interviewers gave of communicating with people with dementia. She talked about someone pointing at a random object and saying, “Give me the red pen”. The thing they are pointing at is not a red pen, and when the person doesn’t give it to them they get upset. To know what the person is communicating can take awhile to learn.

This example resonated with me — and still does. It is a striking example of communication.

I am not trying to make light of dementia here (the anxiety and fear that can be part of it can be quite distressing); I am trying to take seriously the challenges to communication that it confronts us with.

I think this little example can teach us some things about communication.

We All Communicate from a Frame of Reference

People can cling stubbornly to the way they see things. It is a red pen, whatever other people may call it.

For people with dementia it seems, to us, that this naming is quite arbitrary. This does raise a big question though: aren’t our names for things quite arbitrary? A person with dementia is inventing their own language to some extent (made up of the same vocabulary but with different words assigned to different things).

I think we have all witnessed arguments where other people seem to be talking different languages. At the social level these can be formalised into disciplines — so that an economic, psychological and sociological ‘explanations’ of an event can seem quite different.

Communication is Intentional

Sometimes we can’t get the words out, or the words “just won’t come”. There is a gap between what we want to communicate and our ability to do so.

Most of us, most of the time, probably accept this quite readily. We only struggle with it when we are trying to communicate something very important — why we love this person so much; what it is about this art, craft or pastime that grips us when all the others don’t. In these situations we are (or at least I am) left groping, unable to communicate the specific.


I was brought up in a pretty straight Christian family. Lying was not looked upon favourably. So agreeing that something is a red pen when it plainly isn’t can be something of a dilemma.

And yet…the person is communicating (or trying to). They are not trying to mislead. So in one sense they are not lying at all (despite the fact that the words they are using have a meaning different to the usually accepted one).

In the usual way we know that often politeness isn’t ‘sincere’. As an adolescent I found this annoying and got quite impatient with it. (I would still prefer a world where directness was more prevalent.) Now I think that people’s intention to consider others, even if they are not really interested in the weather or someone’s health, is still a good thing. In my view, it would be a better thing if we could always be genuinely interested in the other person.

Communication is About Making a Common World

I think communication is in some way about establishing a common world.

As we make friends with someone we usually get a better sense of what their words mean. We get a sense of our friend’s internal world — what they feel strongly about, what they are indifferent to, how they think, what their precious experiences are, their core issues and so on. We get a sense of where their words come from.

As we make friends we establish some kind of common world between ourselves and our friend. My friends and I often have ‘codes’ — shorthand ways of referring to common experiences or perceptions. This can be TV shows we love or people that we know. We can communicate easily by referring to these common experiences — e.g., “I met this guy, and he’s just like Ms. X”. We use this common world of experiences that we have established to be quicker and more precise in our communication.

Communicating well I think requires our getting a sense of what the other person’s world is like.

What do you think? What are the memorable moments of communication for you? How would you describe the really memorable moments of communication in your life as compared to just the normal ones?

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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