Miscommunication: so much depends on which definition you use

Published by Peter on

So many of my clients’ workplace issues come down to miscommunication.

And so much miscommunication comes down to two different people using the same words to mean different things.

That can cause delay, confusion, and even outright conflict when everyone assumes that everyone else is using the same meanings they are.

A lot of times, miscommunication is just a matter of context

Where you are, who you are with, and what kind of situation you are in can change the way certain words are used.

The word “exercise,” for example, might have a different meaning in a PE class than a math class. The word “class” might have a different meaning in a New York cocktail party than in a rural school PTA meeting.

As another example, the meaning of the phrase “diagonal crossing OK” seems obvious in the context of a crosswalk at an intersection. It means “in this place, it is safe to walk from one corner directly to the far corner.”

This means you can cross the intersection diagonally, though the image without the words would be somewhat less obvious.

In the context of a crosswalk, “diagonal crossing OK” makes sense because at most intersections, such an action would be surprising to motorists and dangerous to the pedestrian. The default rule is to cross only one direction at a time.

But put the phrase “diagonal crossing OK” in a different context, and it takes on a different and potentially confusing meaning.

Imagine, for example, seeing “Diagonal Crossing OK” sign in a church.

Image generated with Adobe Express.

Now, I am not a religious person, but I understand that there is a certain way that people of some faiths make the sign of the cross. I have also heard this referred to as “crossing oneself.”

In this context “diagonal crossing OK” may mean that no one will get in trouble for crossing oneself in a nonstandard way. Or, it may still mean “it is okay to cross from one corner of this place to the far corner.”

The context has brought a whole new meaning to the phrase, which could be confusing to some people. Especially to people who expect a different meaning from the one the sign is trying to indicate.

Miscommunication through assumptions about cultural imagery

That example above, about a sign in a church, is totally made up. The artwork was created by Adobe Express, though I had to fix up the lettering. (Adobe had used AI speak: “Diacoiral Cirrsig OK.”)

The photo below, however, is totally real. I took this picture outside a public restroom in Nashville, Tennessee.

This could mean something other than what you think it does.

I first took this sign to mean “restrooms for women and for men.”

Then, as the parent of a transgender person, I thought perhaps it was not a statement about gendered restrooms at all.

Perhaps it was a statement about urgency.

That is, people who have a normal level of urgency to use the restroom should queue to the right. People who REALLY HAVE TO GO RIGHT NOW should queue to the left.

Because I knew I was in Tennessee, however, I had enough context to understand that these were unlikely to be all-gender restrooms. So when I arrived at the doors, I was not surprised to see that, indeed, there was one restroom for women and another for men.

By the way, I’m intentionally being overly fussy about this sign to illustrate a point. I think the sign is amusing. I’m not a pedantic sociopath, after all.

The point is that even when you think you’re being clear, you may unintentionally be giving the wrong messages to people who bring different assumptions to the situation.

Even when one part of the context is mostly obvious (“the restrooms are over here in this part of the food court”), other aspects of context or other cultural influences may be muddying the messages.

A real world example of miscommunication nearly destroying an enterprise product launch

About a decade ago, a member of my team was trying to get two other internal tech teams to find and fix a bug that threatened to derail our really big product release. My person had been pushing for a fix for more than a month, and literally nothing had been done by either of the two tech teams.

They both just kept blaming each other, each one claiming that their part of the software was working just fine.

With a week to go before our go/no-go decision, I interceded. I got on a call with everyone and just listened for a few minutes.

All three parties—my person, tech team A, and tech team B—were using the same words. It seemed like they all understood each other with crystal clarity.

But I could tell something wasn’t right. I decided to play stupid. I asked the leader of tech team A what a particular database term meant.

When he answered, tech team B blew a fuse. “What? That’s not what we use that term to mean at all. We use it to mean this other thing.”

Three minutes later, a solution was identified. The product launched on time, with great success.

It turned out both tech teams’ parts of the software were indeed working just fine. Because they were trying to plug them together at the wrong point, however, it was never going to work.

They each made assumptions about the term being used, and no one ever bothered to check their assumptions until I forced the question.

Miscommunication is not always someone’s fault

I want to stress that in the example above, I don’t blame any one person for the miscommunication.

Everyone had a clear understanding of what they were saying, and everyone thought they clearly understood what the others were saying.

But words have different meanings, and understanding the full context is important to making sure you are using the proper meanings of those words.

Otherwise, you may end up with some serious problems.

I don’t even want to speculate.

I can help.

I work with top executives and middle managers to improve their leadership skills, their workplace culture, and the effectiveness of their teams. Also, I help individuals identify and achieve their personal goals. Would you like to become more aware, be more effective, be more empowered, and feel fully prepared for your next steps?

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Categories: Communication


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