Think before you speak: Avoiding communication disasters

Effective communication is not as easy – or as straightforward – as it seems. Culture, differing non-verbal cues, and reflective listening aren't always enough to prevent some comical misunderstandings.

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  • Effective communication is not as easy — or as straightforward — as it seems. Cultures, backgrounds, body language, and unspoken expectations contribute to the complexity of communication. The goal of any communication is understanding — of a person or a situation. However, in this day and age it seems we have anything but.

  • Non-verbal cues and communication

  • Most of any communication is filled with nonverbal cues — eye contact, facial expressions, touch, and even sounds of speech. Translating and using nonverbal cues have the potential to enhance and improve the quality of communication or it has the potential to tank the best of relationships. The only problem is that we are not necessarily born with the knowledge of how to decipher these cues.

  • Where's your sign?

  • Most ,if not all, of us didn’t have the luxury of someone holding up a sign explaining nonverbal cues while growing up. Some were taught with a good butt kicking when we misunderstood or misused a cue. I think I was 12 when it clicked that not every joke told by an adult is equally received when shared by a child. When I told my mother that her pancakes were runny like snot I didn't hear any laughter; not even when I made the same scratchy, liquid sound of snorting mucus I had witnessed from my Uncle when he told the same joke earlier to a different audience. I had no trouble deciphering my mother’s nonverbal cues that day.

  • Listening

  • What you say is not necessarily what they hear:
  • Take the time to listen not only to the words people use but also to what they are actually saying. Try clarifying the information you receive, minus the emotional stress you may be tempted to dive into, to avoid conflicts and misunderstandings. One way to do this is to be sure that you fully understand the correct meaning of words you — or someone else — is using.

  • When my daughter was 14 she attended a weeklong co-ed church retreat. Part of the fun of the week was having the boys — as gentlemen — escort the girls to various activities. When I asked if she had fun at the retreat my daughter dreamily replied, “I loved it! I especially loved being fondled over by the boys.” I almost spit my soda out across the room and was close to vowing to keep her locked in a tower until at least the age of 55 — minus the cute little animals for company. Luckily, I had my wits about me and deduced she was probably misusing a word.

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  • “Sweetie, do you mean ‘fawned’ over?”

  • “Oh, yeah! Fawned over! It was so nice!”

  • Taking the time to really listen within the proper context and not just rephrasing (the Thesaurus has some humdinger synonyms for fondled) many misunderstandings can be avoided. By examining the context and environment my daughter was in — a CHURCH retreat — and using the logical side of my brain we were able to effectively understand each other. (It also prevented me from teaching some of my own nonverbal cues to a few naive and innocent young men ... )

  • Culture matters

  • Teenage girls are not the only ones who struggle with meaning. Who can forget the last presidential election when Mitt Romney became an Internet sensation with his “binders full of women”or the backlash from Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment. What the candidates meant was not only different from what they said, but also from what people understood or heard. The parties who mistook these phrases were missing context, a very important component of effective communication.

  • When Kentucky Fried Chicken first entered the Chinese market they soon realized that things really do get lost in translation. Their oft-used American slogan of “finger lickin’ good,” was translated into Chinese characters that meant “eat your fingers off.” (Perhaps, of course, if the franchise owners were Mr. and Mrs. Donner... )

  • And what about Pepsi and the Chinese? The slogan “Pepsi brings you back to life,” was literally translated as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” Uh, not a good idea. Some families may not be so thrilled to have Uncle Leroy back. (Unless this was a trial run for an Asian Walking Dead series and Uncle Leroy eats his family's fingers off. Just sayin' ...)

  • We don’t always get things just right. Try thinking through things before you say them out loud. And even if what you are about to say seems a bit off it doesn’t mean it can’t leave your lips, it just means you need to be prepared to deal with the consequences. Just remember, it takes a lot of finesse to remove the bitter taste of foot from mouth.

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Ramona Siddoway writes from Houston, Texas. An avid traveler she has published articles in Angola, Brussels, and the UK as well as the United States. Besides contributing to FamilyShare she writes for Young Adults and Middle Grade. Ramona is married with four children, a dog that is paranoid about the outdoor sprinkler system and an Angolan cat that is incredibly snarky when she is cold. 


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