Tacit Knowledge and Communication

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Tacit Knowledge and Communication

Heather Fetting

Tacit knowledge is knowledge of which we are not consciously aware. This understanding underlies all of our conscious knowledge and directs our behavior and interactions. Much of social behavior reflects interactions of tacit knowledges without the people involved being aware of any communication. Awareness of communication arises under two circumstances: when our routine, unconscious activities are interrupted and they enter into the realm of consciousness and when there are incompatibilities in tacit understandings which lead to confusion. For example, a friend and I are very similar in that we unconsciously follow the crowd when walking, as our conscious minds are usually preoccupied with other matters. When there is no crowd to follow, our feet follow the same path with no apparent conscious effort. It is tacitly agreed that one of us will follow the other, even though neither is aware of this arrangement. It is when we stop chatting or daydreaming that we become aware of our actions, as our conscious minds are freed from their tasks and the aimless movement of our legs is able to enter into our consciousness.

This shift from the unconscious to the conscious creates an incongruity between our interactions, making us stop what we are doing and attempt to gather our thoughts. Up until this point our tacit understandings have been in sync, allowing for unspoken communication between us. When this pattern is interrupted, we become aware of this previously tacit form of communication. When we become conscious of our silent communication, we cannot function in the same way. Our conscious thinking ruins our understanding, much like a dancer who cannot move gracefully when she overanalyzes her steps. When my friend and I become aware of the fact that we do not know where we are going, our legs stop moving and we awkwardly pause until we can recollect ourselves and head in the appropriate direction. It is when we are on the right track that we can let our movements slip into our unconsciousness while our conscious minds move on to more pressing matters.

This pattern is also seen in class rooms when an instructor poses a question to the class while lecturing. Very often, no one responds to the question quickly. The students usually look around the room and at each other, trying to assess the situation. There is an unwillingness to be the person to break the tension, even if the answer to the question is known. What could account for this tension? Perhaps the question posed during the lecture produces a shift within the minds of the students; a movement from passive listening and unconscious processing to active, conscious thinking. This shift to the consciousness could catch the student off-guard and make him or her pause awkwardly and glance around the room to gauge what others are doing. Since in many instances virtually everyone has also paused and is glancing toward his or her neighbor, an exaggerated tension grips the room. As the students wait for someone to break the silence, there is a collective feeling of uncertainty brought about by their own hyper-awareness of the situation. This feeling is tacitly understood by everyone in the room but it is not acknowledged in words or understood on an intellectual level. This tacit connection is broken when one student rises above the collective urge to remain silent and speaks.

Much of our everyday behavior involves certain conventions which cannot be easily explained to someone unaccustomed to them. These cultural practices were instilled in at an early age us when we observed our environment and mimicked those around us. As such, this knowledge was transferred to us tacitly, not explicitly; therefore, it cannot be passed on to a foreigner through verbal explanations alone. For example, westerners usually have difficultly using chopsticks for the first time. Even though experienced chopstick users may concisely and clearly explain the proper way to handle them, most novices must practice before they can use them without thought.

Everything that we do when we interact with others, from the way we nod when we listen to the inflections of our voices, has a basis in tacit knowledge, as we are not aware of what we are doing. These conventions in speech and mien give us a sense of familiarity and consistency which enables us to function properly, or at least to function in a way that the culture deems proper. As these conventions vary among cultures, it is difficult to act properly and without thought in a new environment. For example, the customary distance between two people holding a conversation differs in some cultures. A westerner in Japan may cause discomfort by standing too closely, making the native people around him or her take a few steps back without realizing it.

One's own patterns of tacit communication do not hold any value in foreign cultures. As a result, one scrutinizes one's behavior in order to adjust and it is brought into the conscious mind. It is not until a person is assimilated into the culture and he or she can find some common ground with the natives that behavior can be absorbed into the realm of the unconscious and tacit communication is once again possible. This common ground can be labeled as a collective tacit knowledge, which consists of the patterns of thought that pervade all human cultures. For instance, proper behavior differs greatly among cultures but the concept of proper behavior still exists. Only people who were raised without human contact and were not exposed to this concept at an early age do not comprehend it. This collective tacit knowledge makes tacit communication possible and vice versa.

A clash in tacit understandings results in a disharmony in tacit communication, which brings this communication to the forefront of the mind. This occurs when social mores are unwittingly broken. A breach in etiquette can produce a sense of intense, visceral discomfort in the people who observe it. If I were to stare at a passerby on the street and smile at him or her for a moment too long, that person would become confused and apprehensive. The expected pattern of behavior by which our actions are governed has been violated, albeit on a small scale. Before this point, he or she was not even aware of this tacit rule; it was not brought to his or her attention until there was a violation of the rule and a breakdown in communication.

Although we do not always consciously realize it, we are expected to behave with a modicum of predictability. Despite variances among individuals, all of our interactions are to some degree standardized, such as how loudly we speak and how we gesture with our hands. During the developmental stages of our lives, we absorb the tacit knowledge of others in order to gain a sense of it. As time progresses, individual experiences mold each person's tacit knowledge, even though it is still influenced by the collective tacit knowledge of which we are a part. These different experiences can drastically change our tacit knowledge and lead to incompatibility with the tacit knowledge of others.

For example, let us suppose that one child, Susan, was raised in a family that valued displays of affection and freely gave her hugs. Barry, on the other hand, had emotionally distant parents and rarely received signs of affection. As a result, Susan is more open and loving and Barry is more reserved. If Susan were to hug Barry, Barry might become confused and try to push her away. Susan is unconsciously expecting Barry to hug her back, since that has always been the reaction that she has received. This display of affection from Susan violates Barry's unconscious expectations and so he rejects it. Both children are doing what comes naturally to them, according to their own understandings. While neither of them have ever questioned their tendencies or considered the fact that there are other ways of behaving, this encounter produces discord and brings this seemingly natural act (or lack thereof) into their conscious minds for analysis. As a result, they will come to understand that not everyone is like them.

Tacit knowledge differs greatly among individuals and cultures, according to the experiences of each. These differences are often taken for granted when we live in a population that is relatively uniform in its actions and behavior, since we forget that there are vastly different ways in which others live and think. When these differences are encountered in other people, our unconscious processes are disrupted and brought into our conscious minds for inspection. It is at this point that we are made aware of the fact that we are relying upon our tacit knowledge to communicate with others. While these variations in tacit knowledge often lead to miscommunication and confusion, analysis of them can lead to a greater understanding of our inner workings and relationships.

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