Do you know anyone you just can't seem to communicate with, no matter how hard you try? If you make a joke, they take it seriously. If you pay them a compliment, they assume you have a hidden agenda. If you make a suggestion, they take it as an order. Such encounters are frustrating, and the results are usually not comedic. Whether such people are coworkers, acquaintances, or relatives, it seems that most of what you do or say passes through some sort of distortion filter before it registers on their brain, and it may not work any better as you try to make sense of their actions. In fact, it seems that one or both of you are in a perpetual state of confusion over just what has gone wrong, and you find yourself describing one after another of your interactions as a misunderstanding. It would be frustrating enough if such experiences were restricted to a few problem individuals we might be able to avoid much of the time. Unfortunately, we also experience such difficulties with people we know intimately and feel that we understand well. How does this happen? Can anything be done to avoid these exasperating experiences?
First, we must recognize that although interpersonal misunderstandings are among the more frustrating of life experiences, they are also among the more common. They are, quite simply, a part of the human condition. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was written four hundred years ago, but the tragic misunderstanding that marks the climax of that play still captures the imagination of romantics everywhere. In the final act, after mistaking his lover's feigned suicide for the real thing, a grief-stricken Romeo kills himself. Awakening to find her true love dead, Juliet completes the tragedy by taking her own life. Almost four centuries later, in 1934, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert won Academy Awards for It Happened One Night, a story about star-crossed lovers who almost lost their chance at happiness because of a misunderstanding. In 1962 The Beverly Hillbillies was introduced to American television viewers and proceeded to become one of the most popular series ever. No small share of the comedy that surrounded the life of the Clampetts was the result of their inability to understand "city ways" and their tendency to act in ways that were consistently misunderstood by the "city folks" of Beverly Hills.
Real-life history is also full of examples of the dramatic and often devastating effects of interpersonal misunderstandings. Historians such as Michael Beschloss, for example, contend that the well-documented Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was the result of a series of misunderstandings between President Kennedy and communist leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro. Beschloss (1991) suggests that the crisis was at least partially rooted in a misinterpretation of comments made by President Kennedy to Khrushchev's son-in-law, Alexei Adzhubei—comments that Khrushchev and Castro took as a signal of the president's intention to invade Cuba. That nearly devastating misunderstanding led the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.
Thus, whether in the context of fiction or real life, interpersonal misunderstandings are capable of transforming assurance into apprehension, consternation into comedy, triviality into tragedy. Most of our mistakes in comprehending the actions of others are so inconsequential as to escape notice, yet on occasion they have been important enough to change the course of history. Being misunderstood is always frustrating and sometimes infuriating, and misunderstanding others can lead to embarrassment or serious interpersonal conflict. Perhaps more significant than all the potential consequences of misunderstandings, however, is the fact that their very existence threatens one of the most basic assumptions upon which all of social life is based: the assumption that others will interpret our actions more or less as we intend them. When misunderstandings call this assumption into question, we feel not just embarrassed, frustrated, or angry; we may feel socially paralyzed, not knowing what to do to remedy the situation. Even seemingly inconsequential misunderstandings tend to disrupt the normal flow of interaction, create confusion, and at least momentarily necessitate a refocusing of our attention and redirection of our actions. More serious misunderstandings can damage or destroy entire relationships among co-workers, friends, or loved ones.
Knowing that it is often difficult to make ourselves understood, even to those we know well, we are often tempted to avoid interaction with those who are strange to us. Yet, like it or not, many of us are required on a regular basis to communicate with individuals whose perspective on the world is radically different from our own. In our much talked about global community, human interaction is increasingly characterized by rewards previously unattainable, but also by interpersonal hazards previously unimagined. Life becomes significantly more complex as we attempt to communicate with those who do not share our assumptions about the meaning of events or about what actions are appropriate, even in the most familiar situations. In some settings, a misunderstood comment or gesture can cause the loss of an important business deal; in others, misunderstandings can cause the loss of human lives.
A couple I know recently had an experience in which a series of misunderstandings endangered their lives and the lives of their two-year-old twin sons. As they were driving through an industrial neighborhood on their way home one night, a car pulled up beside them and the driver, with an angry expression on his face, gestured for them to pull over. Interpreting the stranger's actions as hostile, my friends sped up in hopes of losing him. Rather than backing off, the other driver continued to pursue. Convinced that they were in harm's way, my friends drove even faster and more recklessly in order to stay ahead of the "madman" they feared would run them off the road at the first opportunity. This scene was replayed for several miles at higher and higher speeds until finally a police officer spotted the speeding vehicles and pulled them over. As it turned out, the stranger was a security guard who had heard what he thought were shots being fired near the property he was guarding just as my unfortunate friends drove by. He gave chase, assuming that the shots had come from their vehicle. Apparently not seeing the twins in the back seat, he interpreted my friends' refusal to pull over as evidence of their guilt. They in turn interpreted his demand that they do so—and his insistence on chasing them—as evidence of his intent to do them harm.
Although such encounters with strangers can be extremely frightening, for most of us, they are also rare. What is all too common, however, is the feeling of utter dismay that comes from realizing that we have been misunderstood by someone with whom we have time and again shared our innermost thoughts and feelings. Many a major marital dispute has evolved from a minor misunderstanding. Thus, whether in foreign territory or on our own home turf, the possibility of misunderstanding is an ever-present threat to human interaction.
In order to grasp the nature of interpersonal misunderstandings, we must understand the process through which they unfold, and we must understand the importance of the social and cultural contexts in which they take place. Thus, this book is presented in two parts; the first part explores the social and psychological processes that produce misunderstandings, and the second part locates this process within the contexts of interaction between people of different cultural, social-class, racial, and gender identities.
Misunderstanding or Nonunderstanding?
In order to avoid being misunderstood as an author, I need to define a few key terms. First, I will often refer to the people involved in misunderstandings as "actors" and "observers." By actors I mean simply anyone whose behavior has been observed or taken note of by others, while observers are those who have taken note of the actions of another. Although this is an important distinction, it is also important to remember that, as interaction proceeds, an individual who is an actor one moment is an observer the next, and vice versa. Thus when I speak of "interactants," I mean individuals who pass the roles of actor and observer back and forth in a sometimes orderly but usually sloppy, inexact, and overlapping manner.
Because this book is about problems of understanding, it is especially important to clearly distinguish between the terms misunderstanding and nonunderstanding. Misunderstandings exist when observers think they understand the intentions of actors but do not. Nonunderstandings exist when observers realize that they do not understand the actions of others. Thus the primary difference between nonunderstanding and misunderstanding is that when we do not understand the actions of the other we are aware of that fact, whereas when we misunderstand, we don't realize it. I could not claim to have ever misunderstood the nuances of quantum mechanics, for example, because I cannot claim to have ever understood them. This distinction is clear from the way we talk about such things in everyday life. Comments such as "I don't understand" or "I misunderstood" make perfectly good sense to those familiar with our language, but the phrase "I misunderstand" is likely to be taken as a grammatical mistake. These usages imply that, as observers, we can be aware of our misunderstanding of others only as a condition of the past. "I now realize that I misunderstood the lecture on quantum mechanics." As actors, however, it is quite possible for us to be aware that we are being misunderstood even as it is happening. "You don't understand what I'm trying to tell you," said the physics professor. The way such problems typically are handled is influenced by the fact that observers can be aware of their misunderstanding of others only after the fact, whereas actors can become aware that their actions are being misunderstood as it is happening. I will pursue this point in more detail later.
Misunderstanding As Process
As the definitions above suggest, we normally think of misunderstandings as states of being that exist when two people have different understandings of what one of them has done or said. However, because the primary purpose of this book is to describe how such states come about, it will be necessary for us to view misunderstandings as dynamic processes. Analyzing them in this way requires that we focus on four possible stages that together constitute the misunderstanding process: (1) an initial action, (2) an observation of that action, (3) an interpretation of what has been observed, and, often but not always, (4) an overt reaction on the part of the observer. Misunderstanding can result from problems at any of these stages. One of the advantages of realizing that misunderstandings are part of an ongoing process of interaction is that we are encouraged to attend to the roles of both actors and observers. Doing so should make us somewhat less defensive regarding our own actions, less judgmental of the actions of others, and consequently better able to work together to overcome the conflicts that often accompany misunderstandings.
I will discuss each of the stages in this process in detail, starting with an analysis of action in the next chapter. Although I will start by considering the types of actions that are most often misunderstood, it is important to recognize at the outset that misunderstandings are rarely exclusively the result of flawed or incompetent performances of actors. When we realize the diverse meanings that the same words and deeds can have in different settings, it becomes obvious that actions are given meaning by those who interpret them. It is also true, however, that action plays an important role in the creation of some misunderstandings. We often say things we don't mean or fail to adequately express what we want to say. Sometimes we say too much, sometimes too little.
Although many misunderstandings can be attributed to slips of the tongue or other inappropriate or unexpected actions, many others are the result of observers' errors in seeing or hearing. Does this mean, as is often suggested, that we only hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see? Research from cognitive psychology suggests that it would be more accurate to say that we can see only what we expect to see. People often have rather rigid expectations of how others should behave, and those expectations get in the way of their seeing or hearing what is actually expressed. This is called "selective perception."
I recently had a personal experience with this problem. While I was having dinner with a group of colleagues, one member of the group turned to the man sitting directly across the table from me and asked him about his research. Knowing him primarily as a specialist in criminology and deviant behavior, I heard his response as, "I've been studying strippers." As he proceeded to describe the coastal town and people he was studying, I found it increasingly difficult to make sense of what he was saying; most of it seemed to have nothing to do with nude dancers. Finally, realizing that I must have misunderstood, I interrupted him and asked, "Did you say you were studying strippers?" He laughed and replied, "No, shrimpers." My categorization of him as someone who studied unusual and illicit behavior had led me to mishear what he had said. This kind of selective perception happens all the time, and often those affected never realize it has happened. Not only what we hear, but also what we see is susceptible to selective perception. In the chapter on observation I will explain how and why such distortions occur.
We humans have a tremendous curiosity about the world around us. As curious creatures, we are rarely satisfied to simply observe; we also have a need to understand why things are as they are. This means that we are continually engaged in the process of interpretation. Even on those rare occasions when we are not particularly curious about the meaning of the other's behavior, our ability to carry on a conversation or formulate appropriate responses to others requires that we accurately interpret the actions we observe. The fact that interpretation is a necessary and frequent activity, however, does not mean that it is easy or that we are always successful at it. In fact, interpretation is even more vulnerable than observation to the contaminating effects of our preconceptions and expectations.
Interpretation is a complicated process because it may involve deciphering not only what was said but why it was said. The most casual greeting between two acquaintances, for example, can raise such questions in our minds as, "Why did he smile that way?" or, "Is he hiding something from me?" Often, misunderstandings are the result of observers imputing more serious or deeper meaning to actions than the actor intended. Those in supervisory positions, for example, are often surprised to find that their most casual comments are assumed by subordinates to carry some deep and ominous meaning. It is all too easy to read too much into, and thus overinterpret, such acts as a casual smile or an unenthusiastic greeting. Of course, it also works the other way around: observers sometimes underinterpret or attribute less significance to actions than actors intend, which leads actors to such erroneous conclusions as, "She never takes me seriously!"
Once behavior has been observed and interpreted, we are usually expected to react in some way. It is at this stage that observers become actors and respond to the initial action on the basis of what they have observed and how they have interpreted it. Of course, not all reactions involve an overt acknowledgment of the misinterpreted action. For example, if we perceive that we have been ignored, snubbed, or insulted, our reaction might well be to ignore it for the time being, either because we are unsure of our interpretation and are thus awaiting additional information or because we simply are not sure how to respond. Whether dramatic or subtle, reactions reflect observers' interpretations of the original action. If our interpretation has been substantially off the mark, our reaction is quite likely to be misinterpreted as well. This is why one misunderstanding so often leads to another. The ease with which misunderstandings escalate and multiply complicates efforts to sort out the truth to everyone's satisfaction. Thus the initial reactions of observers are critical in determining whether a misunderstanding is cleared up, continues, or escalates into a series of misunderstandings or a serious conflict. The following account, provided by one of my former students, illustrates the point.
Two friends had a misunderstanding about money. Susan owed Linda money for a phone bill. Susan sent a check in the mail to Linda. Linda claims not to have received it. Susan sends another check. Linda claims not to have received it either, and then accuses Susan of lying. Linda then writes a letter to Susan telling her she wishes to end their friendship. Of course, Linda was not very polite about this. Susan receives the first check back, stomped "Return to Sender." Susan makes no effort to resolve the situation, feeling that Linda has shown her no trust. Linda still thinks Susan lied about the checks and Susan still thinks Linda is trying to obtain extra money dishonestly.
Because conflicts of this sort are so often byproducts of misunderstanding, it is important to consider how we typically try to avoid conflict or defuse it when it does occur. One strategy that is frequently used is to acknowledge that a misunderstanding has occurred and let that acknowledgment stand as an explanation for the conflict. This strategy is so successful in repairing damaged interactions that it is often employed even when misunderstandings have not occurred. By agreeing to attribute conflicts to misunderstanding, interactants are able to get on with the business at hand and avoid serious damage to their personal relationship. Perhaps most importantly, such misunderstanding accounts accomplish these things without either party having to assume sole responsibility for the original conflict, thus allowing everyone to save face. I will discuss the use of misunderstanding accounts in more detail in the chapter on reaction.
Contexts of Misunderstandings
The second part of this book is devoted to an examination of the cultural and interpersonal contexts of misunderstandings. In considering the role of culture in the creation of misunderstanding, I will focus primarily on problems associated with intercultural communication. Differences in language and the meaning of nonverbal gestures pose especially difficult problems for those attempting to communicate across cultural boundaries. Because such problems are not unique to international communication, however, my analysis will also include problems of understanding across American ethnic and social class groups. In his book Black and White Styles in Conflict, for example, Thomas Kochman reveals how cultural differences produce different interactional styles that often produce misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts when whites and African Americans discuss serious issues.
Although ethnic diversity has characterized America's largest cities for decades, today even our small towns and rural areas are increasingly comprised of people who trace their origins to the far corners of the globe. Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian, and numerous other ethnic enclaves have become familiar parts of both urban and rural communities throughout America's heartland. Although we may eat at the same restaurants, shop in the same stores, and send our kids to the same schools, communication with each other across ethnic boundaries tends to be superficial and is often punctuated by misunderstanding. Failure to understand the cultural practices of those around us is often a source of serious conflict. The following excerpt from a newspaper article illustrates this problem.
Since the 1992 Los Angeles riots—a traumatic event in the collective experience of 1 million Koreans in the United States—a lot of effort has gone into helping immigrants avoid the behavior that is often misinterpreted by those unfamiliar with their culture. To be sure, many factors contributed to the targeting of Korean American-owned businesses during the riots. Korean leaders in Los Angeles readily acknowledge that unpleasant encounters had occurred between Korean shopkeepers and their customers. But, they believe, the negative media portrayal of Korean shopkeepers as rude and uncaring people—without adequate response from Korean proprietors—was the main reason why Koreans were singled out in the looting and firebombing during the riots... Though they feel strongly that this media-reinforced stereotype was unfair, their frustration has propelled thoughtful Korean Americans to come together to try to climb over the cultural wall that has made Koreans perhaps the most misunderstood of Asian immigrants. "When you get to know Koreans, you'll find them compassionate, kind and loyal,"said Mr. Hong. But Koreans neither toot their horn nor go out of their way to make it easy for outsiders to get to know them, he says... Smiling, saying "hello" and shaking hands may be natural to most Americans, but they are not for Korean immigrants in whose culture a smile and small talk are usually reserved for friends and families—and from their point of view, not to be squandered on strangers. Though displaying emotions may not be a virtue in his culture, businessman Jimmy Park has taken to heart the old adage about doing what Romans do when you're in Rome... Mr. Park says Koreans definitely should smile more and lower their voices. "Koreans have loud voices," he said. That combined with dour faces and limited English, can lead to miscommunication. (Dallas Morning News, October 23, 1994)
Americans who do business overseas also have learned the economic value of acquiring some understanding of the cultures of countries where they do business. Such a multicultural approach to business is increasingly necessary, even for those who are not required to conduct negotiations beyond the borders of their own communities. In fact, those who make the effort are finding that investments in intercultural understanding have direct payoffs in the form of better business with fewer problems and indirect payoffs in the form of more congenial work environments.
The way we behave and the way we interpret each other's behavior is also influenced by the formal relationships that link us to each other. For example, in most societies, our own included, who is allowed to act familiar with whom depends largely on the relative power of the individuals involved. An individual in a position of power is typically allowed to act in a more familiar way than someone in a subordinate position. Thus, although an employer might be quite comfortable asking personal questions of his or her employees, the opposite is rarely true. In a more general sense, all interaction is constrained by the social roles we assume in relation to each other. In the second part of the book, which deals with the cultural and social contexts of misunderstandings, I will pay special attention to the kinds of problems that emerge in informal interactions with family and
friends and those that are typically experienced in formal work settings, especially misunderstandings that are linked to differences in formal power. The gender of those involved is another important factor in defining the social context of interactions. Numerous books have been published in recent years dealing with male-female communication problems. Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen (1990) suggests that men and women often misunderstand what the other wants or needs because they fail to understand the unspoken implications of the other's way of saying things. In a sense, boys and girls grow up in different worlds—worlds that have been largely shaped by adults. As they mature, however, they must learn to forge their own unique relationships with members of the opposite sex. Eventually, most of us unite with a member of the other sex and begin the difficult job of cooperatively constructing a shared life. Nothing in our socialization experience adequately prepares us for that task and, as a result, interaction between women and men attempting to construct a shared and mutually satisfactory life is fraught with confusion and misunderstanding. Women and men who must work together face similar difficulties in creating and sustaining mutual understanding. Thus, in the final chapter I will discuss the role of gender in the misunderstanding process.
Avoiding and Handling Misunderstandings
In addition to explaining some aspects of how misunderstandings come about, the following chapters include specific recommendations and techniques that might aid in the avoidance and resolution of misunderstandings. Although I hope some of my suggestions will prove helpful, I suspect that the greater benefit will come from understanding more fully why and how misunderstandings occur. It would be both pretentious and untrue to suggest that reading this book will in any way assure that those who read it will never again misunderstand nor be misunderstood, or that it will spare them the discomfort, confusion, or conflicts that often result when misunderstandings do occur. However, to the extent that knowledge is power, understanding misunderstandings should be of benefit to anyone who wishes to more smoothly negotiate the rugged and often confusing terrain of everyday social life.