For something we do so regularly, we humans are terrible at communication.
The problem of miscommunication is ever-present and well known, so how is it that despite everyone being highly experienced in the practice of communication, miscommunication is still so common? You wouldn’t expect someone who has spent years driving to regularly veer off the road.
My answer is that miscommunication is a two-sided coin. One side is misspeaking and the other is misunderstanding. For now, let's focus on misunderstanding, and expand upon misspeaking in a later post.
In order to communicate anything, at least two participants are needed — the speaker and the listener. In order for the transmission of an idea to be successful, the speaker needs to convey that idea with words for which both parties have the same or similar meaning. If I think the (fake) word jugwad means good, but you think it means bad, then if I tell you “your cooking is jugwad,” it’s going to cause a significant miscommunication.
So then what causes two people to think the same word has two distinctly different meanings? They’re speaking the same language, wouldn’t they both know what jugwad actually means? Well, this disconnect is caused primarily by the difference between . . .
Connotation and Denotation
Now I have to provide some dictionary definitions; I can’t risk writing an article about miscommunication that contains unclear language. Don’t worry, they’re short.
Denotation is the literal or primary meaning of a word, in contrast to the feelings or ideas that the word suggests.
So, what you just read is the denotation of denotation; the dictionary definition of a word.
Connotation is an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning.
Connotation is the emotions that a word creates in the listener; how someone is likely to react to the word. For instance, the phrases shut up and quiet down carry mostly the same meaning, but dramatically different connotations. Shut up is rude and aggressive, while quiet down is urgent and perhaps annoyed.
For a larger example, I’m going to continue to use the fake word jugwad. Let's imagine that the dictionary says:
Jugwad is having positive and creative qualities.
This makes the meaning of jugwad seem pretty clear. But the common use of the word may be different from the dictionary definition. Let’s say jugwad is commonly used in a mocking or condescending way.
In this circumstance, to call the listener’s cooking jugwad would denote a compliment, but connote an insult. In short, the word would mean two entirely opposite things to the speaker and the listener.
Fortunately, with a miscommunication this dramatic, the speaker will likely notice that despite his kind compliment, the listener seems offended. Thus, the speaker will swiftly clarify the meaning of their statement, and the miscommunication will be smoothed over without incident.
Not all miscommunication is so quickly fixed. When meanings are significantly confused, it’s often easy to notice that a miscommunication has happened. But when meanings are not so dramatically confused, the miscommunication may not be noticed, and the effects can be just as dire.
I’ve found synonyms to be a useful although sometimes dangerous linguistic tool. Once again, the dictionary definition is:
Synonym is a word or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase in the same language. For example, shut is a synonym of close.
It’s thanks to synonyms that we have such a vibrant, precise, and flexible language in English. Synonyms do a great job of spicing up conversation and enable extremely precise communication.
The danger comes when synonyms have very slight differences between them. Take big and massive. They denote almost the exact same description, but massive conotes a far greater size than big.
Going back to our original example of jugwad, the speaker could just as easily convey a similar denotation with good. Does this mean that jugwad is useless and should be retired? Or perhaps have its denotation changed to match its connotation?
In my opinion, no. Jugwad still has its uses, though they may be few and far between. However, this question is for you to answer. My opinions on the word jugwad don’t matter much to your use of the word. It’s up to you to decide how you use words and how you communicate. If you notice that jugwad is causing problems when communicating with the people around you, then retire it from your repertoire. If enough people agree with you, then the word will disappear, take on new meaning, or evolve into something completely different.
Try to take note in your conversations where little hiccups occur, even when listening. Be precise with your language; say the same thing a few different ways if you have to, and don’t hesitate to ask for clarification if you don’t understand.
One great way to ensure that the message is well understood is to use something called reflective listening. Reflective listening involves repeating what your conversational partner said, but in your own words. Say it in a way that makes sense to you, and see if they agree. If not, ask where you went wrong. The same goes when speaking; if the listener doesn’t seem like they quite get it, ask them to explain what they think you’re saying. It might seem a little unwieldy, but it goes a long way toward ensuring effective communication.
Effective communication is the foundation upon which we interact with our fellow humans, and with a good foundation, you can build anything.