Causes of miscommunication

When we engage in the process of expressing our thoughts, there are several possible risks for communication failure.

The first critical moment is when we try to find words for meanings we want to express. Our thoughts are often rather diffuse and unclear, and it is not always easy to give them an appropriate verbal shape. Even Dostoyevsky mentioned that he was incapable of finding words for everything he would like to say. For us, who have a poorer linguistic capacity, this is even more difficult.

The small nuances and shades of speech provide an additional challenge. HOW we say something is often more important than WHAT we say. The speaker’s way of speaking, for example, the usage of dialect or irritating buzzwords, may block the recipient’s willingness to continue listening. Many small words, such as yes or so, can be pronounced in dozens of ways which then consequently can interpreted differently.

When we have decided what and how to say, the next risk for failure lies in lazy and unclear pronunciation, which can be caused by permanent defects in speech, tiredness or just a negligent attitude towards the communication situation. Poor concentration on speaking and listening can be partly explained by people’s need to be economical in the use of cognitive efforts. We will return to the risks of miscommunication caused by limited resources of the human brain in other sections of this site.

Interaction often takes place in circumstances which include disturbances, for example traffic noise or loud music. Typically, the listener has to guess half of the speech. The risks for misunderstanding are substantial due to the active role of the listener. When listening, we compile the speaker’s output by ourselves and try to foresee what the speaker is going to say. Thus, “overguessing” is a frequent phenomenon in everyday conversation, causing communication failures

Let us take an example. X is standing near to his car and leaving for the grocery store when Y shouts to him Bring tomatoes as well. When X returns from the grocery store with potatoes instead of tomatoes, Y understandably gets angry. The explanation is simple. When X heard the beginning of the sentence Bring, the word potato immediately activated in his brain because he had forgotten to write it down on the list of needed items. So, he “heard” Bring potatoes as well.

Even if the message manages to reach the recipient in the same shape as was meant by the speaker, further risks occur when the recipient engages in the interpretation process of the message. We often mix the concrete object in case: who of the Johns is coming, which of the documents I should take with me, which of the entrances to metro we are going to meet. Many people make mistakes in points of time of appointments and meetings. Words and expressions like in the morning, quickly and warm have various interpretation among people. Important notions and concepts like democracy, happiness and freedom have different meanings which may differ culture-wise.

Linguists have paid a lot of interest to syntactic ambiguity, constructions which may be read and understood in more than one way. Typical instances include cases like small car factory, black suit and shirt, Where is Lisa’s photography, We saw her duck. Syntactically ambiguous expressions may cause mistakes in interpretations, but hints and other forms of indirect speech constitute a more serious risk for misunderstanding. The trash can is full can hardly be understood as a mere statement, but The car is dirty or What a mess in here! may leave space also for such reading.

The process of interaction was described above in a rather schematic manner. In reality, the various stages of producing and receiving a message overlap, but in analysing risks of miscommunication it is useful to see them as separate factors.

In authentic communication, there are two further factors which often overcome the poorly linguistic factors in significance. These are differences in the mental worlds of the interlocutors and recipient design and common ground fallacy. Separate sections are dedicated to these items.


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