Miscommunication

I can never read a doctor’s handwriting. Any doctor. It’s just not legible. It’s a wonder how pharmacists can get the correct medicine for you based on those unstructured scrawls on a little piece of prescription paper. Is there a secret communication code wired in that illegible writing on the prescription? I don’t know. It’s not only the physicians. I once had a dentist prescription, which is equally unreadable. I also had a couple of prescriptions from an acupuncturist, which are even more unreadable. Fortunately the herb medicine store has no trouble decipher the content.

Communication is hard; miscommunication is easy. And I am always worried about miscommunication since I know how often it happens. Also once miscommunication happens, it will take double or even triple amount of time and energy to make amends and correct the mistakes.

When a decimal point is misplaced, a calculating unit is mislabeled, or a phrase is mistranslated, misunderstanding will surely happen and sometimes cause serious consequences. However here I am not talking about mistakes being made. I am talking about no mistake is made, but still misunderstanding happens.

One common mistake that many people have talked about or even experienced is when an American goes to a dinner party at the home of one of the Asian countries. The American, for example Jenny, will finish her plate and say she is full, which means no more food for her. However in many Asian countries, an empty plate means the plate needs to be piled up for more food. If one is full, one usually leaves one’s food untouched on the plate. However the way Jenny was brought up, she has to finish the food on her plate–that is the proper way. So it ends up Jenny has to finish more plates of food than she really desires. There are definitely miscommunication here.

I have experienced another common mistake. In many Asian countries, it is perfectly OK if one is silent. For example, at dinner table with friends or an outing with two or three friends. If one doesn’t want to speak, it is fine and normal. I was brought up this way. However in America, if you go out with two friends and you don’t talk, the other two friends will think you are either ill or angry or weird. Speaking and reciprocating and responding are more important in here.

Another common miscommunication I’ve observed and experienced is that whenever I am silent, I look reserved and stubborn; whenever I am talking, I look too eager and too blunt. My manner is never going to be well balanced as those native English speakers. Actually I am neither too reserved nor too eager. I am quite normal, but my manner is giving people the wrong impression.

Another source of common miscommunication is the English language. English incorporates words from Greeks, Latin, French, Northern European or whatever the Ancient English people came into contact with. On the surface, it absorbs all, but in essence, it has its own way with it with its own style and quirks. Sometimes if one just make a little variation of it, it becomes awkward or even absurd. One simple mistake to make is when somebody is sick or ill, a non-native speaker like me can very easily say somebody has disease or somebody is diseased. It is such an innocent mistake to make. However it sounds terrible to call somebody “having disease or diseased”. The native speakers will think that you are very rude. And English has myriad of pitfalls like this strewn all over the place to trip the non-native speakers.

Years ago, I befriended a Taiwanese American woman who’s a team manager in AT&T in South Jersey for many years. We met on various occasions. I always wanted to ask her how she manages her team of engineers from different backgrounds, but there’s never a context or an opening to broach such a topic. I couldn’t ask the question, but I could observe her. I found that she is very serious about communication and she can talk about an issue from different angles and anticipate all possible consequences, for which she spends time to talk about each eventuality in as detailed manner as possible. I think her management style is like this too–to talk extensively to reduce miscommunication and misunderstanding. She does that despite the complaints from some people that she talks too much and worries too much. She’s not afraid of rejections–her strongest point, even stronger than her communication skills. Even if people become impatient with her, she is undaunted. She has points and she wants to make sure the points are conveyed.

Live and learn. I hope I can continue to learn from all the amazing people I meet offline and online.

29 thoughts on “Miscommunication

  1. Lovely article! Would you believe there are also pitfalls when it comes to the differences in German and Austrian language? I’m an Austrian living and working in Germany … and there are tons of differences. You could compare it to British and American English. An example: while a chair in Austria is every kind of chair (desk chair, dining chair, comfortable chair) the Germans make distinctions. A “chair” in my sense is a fauteuil in their sense. My colleagues constantly get confused when I’m talking about my (desk) chair 😂. Languages are tricky and there are so many nuances and expressions. However, it makes life interesting and I have made the experience with Italian and French that even though I’m not perfect, am only able to communicate the basics, that they appreciate the effort. 😊

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    1. Wow, the diversity of chair. With “so many nuances and expressions,” it is a miracle we don’t make non-stop mistakes. LOL. I heard that there are people on the European mainland who speak several languages, like the tennis star Federer. It is nice to know different languages. I took two hours French in college and had to give up since the pronunciation is so difficult; I also took two weeks Japanese and had to give up since the 100 alphabets drove me nuts. LOL. It is true that British and American English has a lot of differences. Language is fun and annoying at the same time so that we love and hate it.

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  2. Miscommunication and misinterpretation are the worst. Sarcasm is something I don’t get when not done with a proper tone. Sometimes the other person is saying something extremely rude and I might not get it at the time. But later on, when I ponder about it I realise what I understood as a compliment was a sarcastic comment.
    And I’m not a talker. My silence is also considered weird or I’m that too proud. I can’t talk to someone I met for the first time. I don’t know what to talk about to a stranger other than the usual greetings.

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    1. “My silence is also considered weird or I’m that too proud.” Actually I heard about this comment about me many times. Especially from those relatives from my mother’s side. They consider a bookworm like me strange and my different physical feature (I resemble my father more) awkward. Although genetically we are related, I know they are not really my tribe. I want to go where people appreciate me. I can’t convert those who don’t feel a connection to me, but I can go seek those who like to be with me.

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  3. Cross cultural communication is an issue, especially when learning a language. More often than not, in my observation, that when teachers teach a language they rarely talk about the culture behind it. This, then, results lots of faux pas on their students.

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        1. Yes, that’s certainly a good point about culture. Sometimes the Asian cultures are completely opposite of Western cultures. Each with their own rationale and historical context.

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  4. Very interesting. You can perhaps get away with a bit more silence in company in the UK than the USA – though I’ve heard that they expect talk in Ireland or they think there’s something wrong. In Finland it’s certainly OK to be silent in company – in fact with a certain type of Finnish man it’s even expected. (There are some amusing anedcdotes about this phenomenon.)

    English certainly does have nuances which must make it very difficult if it’s your second language. Another one is that it’s possible to use “polite” words in English and actually sound less polite than if you hadn’t used them at all. A lot depends on the tone of voice with which you say “please”, “thank you” and so on. On the other hand English speakers are probably more used to hearing non-native-speakers than say the French, the Germans etc – so in theory they ought be more used to making allowances for non-standard ways of speaking the language.

    Also – regarding communication between men and women – I once read that women aren’t necessarily looking for a solution to their problem if they complain about something. They would prefer to have sympathy and understanding. Men tend to come up with solutions, which may come across as impersonal and cold. Obviously this is a generalisation (and may even sound sexist!) but it’s something I’ve read.

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    1. Nice to know silence is more acceptable in countries like the UK and Finland. For introvert people, sometimes it is hard to talk and silence is preferred. LOL. I used to read a book about cross culture communication (I only finished 10%) and it singles out people from Finland. Obviously their habits are very different from countries surrounding them. LOL.

      Actually that is very true. In academic environment, professors are more used to foreign accent and some professors even take pride in their ability to understand accented English. However undergraduate students are a different story. They have endless complaints of their teaching assistants–many are non-native speakers–and especially the accent. LOL.

      Yes, the communication between men and women are fascinating since the two brains are obviously wired differently. I would readily believe it if somebody says the two different brains belong to two different species. LOL. Of course that’s not biologically correct, but …

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  5. Miscommunication leads to misunderstanding. It’s really important to convey our messages both verbally and non verbally at the same time to make it comprehensive to others. It is scientifically proven that people only take 7% of what you say and the remaining is of your voice, tone and body language mainly. And, you are right. My daughter often get confused with some words. For example, chips in UK and french fries in India.

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    1. That’s so true. The tone and the gesture play a much bigger role in communication than what people give them credit for. A nice gesture and a soothing sweet tone worth a thousand nice words. LOL. I always wonder what people in the UK would call potato chips if they already use chips on french fries.

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        1. Oh, that’s nice. That solves the problem. I used to know someone who stayed in Britain for a while. He loves Marmite. LOL. We all have our little quirks with food. I also know one girl who loves chili even if she didn’t grow up eating spicy food.

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    1. People always tell me this one has Midwest accent, the other has Brooklyn accent etc. I can certainly distinguish the Southern accent. But other than that, they all seem the same to me. LOL.

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    1. Thank you for reading. Yes, English is obviously a gregarious language with so many sources. Sometimes it feels like more than two languages, which are combined into a very specific style of mixture.

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  6. Very well expressed views. You have good observation skills. there exists a lot of culture differences in different parts of world, I think this might be one of the reason for communication gaps.

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  7. In India it’s the same. Hospitality is always on overdrive which is the hallmark of our culture! Feeding is linked to love and warmth and welcoming a guest in the proper way, and it doesn’t stop till at least one extra helping is served to the hapless guest who is quite satisfied with just the one! Haha. Being a small eater myself I have to deploy extra tact each time to fend off the extra loving servings!😍😁

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    1. LOL. That’s so true. Hospitality is going overdrive. And me too. Since I only eat really healthy food (almost no oil and not much spice), I have to use extra tact to ward off all the food that is offered to me. LOL. I feel their love. It’s such a nice feeling to be surrounded by people who are caring and concerned of my well being.

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  8. I have a daughter-in-law from El Salvador who cannot distinguish the words chip, cheap, ship, sheep. Unless they are in context, the four are the same to her. When I first met her family, I finished my plate and then my wife’s uneaten portion. Wow, did that cause a stir.

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    1. Wow. You are absolutely right. Do people from El Salvador have a special custom about the plate? Every culture has its own quirky thinking about the plate. Human beings are funny creatures that we can be so specific about such minute details. LOL. Yes, “i” and “ea” are the same to many non-native speakers, including many Asians.

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      1. My wife’s extended family abides by the same tradition you referenced that a clean plate means they did not serve you generously enough. I further embarrassed them because they did not have enough food to refill my plate. I am a long distance runner and have a large appetite. I am accustomed to finishing my wife’s plate when with family. My only redemption was that I clearly loved their food. I was very careful when I later visited the extended family in El Salvador and carried high caloric trail mix and other supplemental food to eat when I was alone.

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        1. It is so true that in many countries, the portions are much smaller than the portions in America. I know a girl, who I occasionally helped with translation work. She went to Italy for a visit and she came back saying she’s starving there. The food portion is too small. LOL. She is not even doing any physical work or physical training.

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