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OBFUSCATING THE OBVIOUS
Miscommunication Issues in the
Interpretation of Common Terms
Edward C. Brewer
Appalachian State University
Terence L. Holmes
Murray State University
We communicate via many forms every day. When what we say or write is misunderstood, the fault
may lie with either party. One source of miscommunication is the different meaning people place on
commonly used words and phrases. In this article, the authors report preliminary results from a study
on such miscommunication and lay out an agenda for research on improving business communication
based on the Integrative Model of Levels of Analysis of “Miscommunication,” developed by
Coupland, Wiemann, and Giles.
Keywords:
ambiguity; bypassing; language; meaning; miscommunication; subjectivity
Developing excellent communication skills is absolutely essential to effective leadership. The leader must be able to share knowledge and ideas to transmit a sense of
urgency and enthusiasm to others. If a leader can’t get a message across clearly and
motivate others to act on it, then having a message doesn’t even matter.
—Gilbert Amelio, President and CEO of National Semiconductor Corp.
Consider the following references to a request for pictures to be taken:
• “Merely information gathering,” not a “. . . request for action.”
• Informal requests questioned about whether they were a “requirement.”
Edward C. Brewer is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Appalachian
State University. Terence L. Holmes is an associate professor and chair of the Department of
Marketing and Telecommunications Systems Management at Murray State University.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Edward C. Brewer, Associate
Professor of Organizational and Public Communication, Research Development Officer, Appalachian
State University College of Fine and Applied Arts, Department of Communication, Walker Hall 124,
Boone, NC 28608; e-mail: [email protected]
Journal of Business Communication, Volume 46, Number 4, October 2009 480-496
DOI: 10.1177/0021943608329103
© 2009 by the Association for Business Communication
Brewer, Holmes / OBFUSCATING THE OBVIOUS
481
• The same informal requests being “effectively terminated” since they were
not a “requirement,” and senior managers who were unaware of the informal requests telling their general manager that they knew of no “official”
requests.
• Those requesting the pictures were asked if they had a “mandatory need”
for the photos. They didn’t know what the term mandatory need meant, so
they didn’t pursue it further.
The scenario summarized above might make for an interesting sidebar to
a discussion of communication problems if not for the subject of the
requested photos. In January 2003, the team of experts investigating the
extent of possible damage to the Space Shuttle Columbia made an informal request for Defense Department photographs to try to determine how
much damage the shuttle sustained to one wing upon liftoff for its ill-fated
mission. The board that investigated the resulting disaster and loss of
seven astronauts issued the quotes above in its report. The question that
will always be in people’s minds is, “Could NASA have done something
to detect the damage and either repair it or mount a rescue of some sort?”
(Stein, 2003).
Although the consequences of poor communication are seldom as
severe as those faced by the NASA mission team leaders, we all encounter
substandard outcomes stemming from miscommunication. It is an issue in
all facets of life. We take much of our communication for granted.
Mortensen (1997) reminds us that “it is virtually impossible to come into
direct contact with another person without making personal assumptions”
(p. 27). Organizations are, of course, interested in achieving accurate communication and minimizing inadvertent miscommunication in support of
internal and external communication of business plans and actions.
Businesses desire employees to learn proper communication tactics and
how to avoid misunderstandings that can lead to dissatisfaction among
organizational colleagues and between the organization and its customers
and other stakeholders.
SUBJECTIVE PROBABILITY
In this article, we examine miscommunication issues that occur as a
result of commonly used terms that relate to the likelihood that something
will occur (such as always, never, probably, usually, and often) and when
something will occur (such as ASAP, soon, today, tomorrow, and right
away). The term subjective probability is commonly used to describe the
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words dealing with the likelihood an event will occur. Researchers from
several different disciplines have noted how people consider such probabilities in their decision making. For example, Bassett and Lumsdaine
(2001) studied accuracy in relation to subjective assessments in health and
retirement decisions, while Kardes et al. (2001) examined consumer belief
systems as stated through subjective probability calculations. Most of this
and other research concerning subjective probability has focused on investigating specific belief systems. In this article, we focus on subjective
probability and its role in the effectiveness of the communication process.
Understanding the implications of the use of such terms can help in formulating better training to improve communication effectiveness at all
levels of the business environment and in organizations of all types.
The linear model of communication introduced over half a century ago
by Shannon and Weaver (1949) introduced the concept of “noise.”
Communication models, of course, have become much more dynamic to
represent the transactional nature of communication. As the understanding of noise has expanded, vague words (such as soon, ASAP, probably,
often, etc.) can be identified as part of this noise that results in a loss of
information during the flow of communication from source to destination.
Recent research has examined perception and miscommunication in the
construction industry (English, 2002) and on performance evaluations that
could ultimately affect productivity (Milliman, Taylor, & Czaplewski,
2002). Others have noted communication difficulties as a factor in collective bargaining (Knowles, 1958), as well as the previously mentioned
accuracy issues (Bassett & Lumsdaine, 2001) and the subjective nature of
consumer beliefs (Kardes et al., 2001).
As the subjective areas of these studies reflect, the communication
problem is both persistent and universal and can result in troubling consequences, such as lower productivity, poor motivation, loss of customers,
and other unfavorable outcomes. In addition to subjective probability, the
understanding of time can be an important contributor to miscommunication. How a message sender makes sense of or understands time may be
quite different from the message recipient’s understanding of the same
concept. Butler (1995) examined time as a variable in organizational
analysis. He presented a conceptual framework that included “the notion
that time, as we experience it in the present, can only have meaning in
relation to our understanding of the past and our vision of the future”
(p. 946). Butler pointed out that “all organizational processes have a time
dimension” (p. 947). Thus, the understanding of both probability issues
Brewer, Holmes / OBFUSCATING THE OBVIOUS
483
and time issues regarding miscommunication can have a major impact on
the effectiveness of individual and organizational communication.
As the subjective areas of these studies reflect, the communication problem
is both persistent and universal and can
result in troubling consequences, such
as lower productivity, poor motivation,
loss of customers, and other unfavorable outcomes.
COMBATING AMBIGUITY
Interlocutors tend to need a sense of clarity. Haywood, Pickering, and
Branigan (2005) found that “speakers can be sensitive to potential ambiguities, and that they try explicitly to disambiguate their utterances when
the visual context affords the opportunity for miscommunication” (p. 366).
While the visual aspect could take us to a whole new realm, the idea that
speakers can be sensitive to the ambiguous nature of language is an important
consideration for organizational communication at all levels. Misunderstanding occurs when difficulties with understanding or comprehension
are not revealed interactionally (Olsina, 2002). Linguistic scholars have
also studied equivocation in communication (Janicki, 2002). Janicki
(2002) concludes, “Both the professional linguist and the layperson
appear to believe that much of the use of difficult/incomprehensible language is an unnecessary hindrance to communication, no matter what the
reasons for that use may be” (p. 212). Clearly, ethical problems could arise
from the misuse of ambiguous communication, especially if it is intentionally used to deceive the other party. An ethical discussion of miscommunication could also take us in a whole new direction that we do not
pursue in this study. However, we will mention here that ambiguity is not
necessarily bad. For instance, Eisenberg (1984) suggests that “particularly
in turbulent environments, ambiguous communication is not a kind of
fudging, but rather a rational method used by communicators to orient
toward multiple goals” (pp. 238-239). As the interlocutors process equivocal language, meaning becomes an issue. Turner and Krizek (2006) raise
this issue:
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Assuming that meanings are understood in relation to other meanings begs
the question, “Which meanings do we use as context?” This question is
consistent with the hermeneutic tradition’s concepts of the hermeneutic circle, wherein the part can only be understood in relation to the whole and the
whole in relation to its parts. . . . The hermeneutic circle does not provide
an answer; rather, it validates the need to continually ask the question and
move through repeating iterations of interpretation at multiple contextual
levels. (p. 138)
Relying on only one perspective can be dangerous when making sense of
a situation or communication process. Larson (2003) uses a fire that
occurred in Colorado in 1994 (named by state officials as the “South
Canyon Fire”) as a case study to examine the concept of organizational
sense making and discusses the “particle” (product or customer) worldview as a distinct way of thinking and seeing from the “activity” (organizational) worldview. In discussing practical implications, Larson (2003)
states, “Over-reliance on a particle perspective neglects the specialized
activities vital to organizations” (p. 11). The South Canyon Fire tragedy,
during which 14 firefighters died, demonstrated a need for understanding
both perspectives. Relying on only one perspective can be problematic
when trying to make sense of meaning within the context of a communication event. Applying Larson’s discussion of “worldview” to the understanding of context in an organizational communication event thus
illustrates the need for common understanding.
Thus, the understanding of both probability issues and time issues regarding
miscommunication can have a major
impact on the effectiveness of individual and organizational communication.
Quite obviously, there are implications for training in business and
interpersonal relationships. Gonzalez et al. (2004) call for incorporating
more knowledge and skills relating to communication, teamwork, and multifunctional teams. Clarifying meaning in common terms seems like an
obvious way to increase shared meaning in both business and interpersonal
settings, but these terms are so common that usage is often taken for
granted, and context is not always fully considered. Even researchers seeking to examine where or what the communication problems might be find
Brewer, Holmes / OBFUSCATING THE OBVIOUS
485
it difficult to accurately estimate the source or the extent of the problem
area. Past research shows that alternative formats for measuring miscomprehension can result in different estimates of such miscomprehension
(Gates & Hoyer, 1986). For example, subjective probability literature
includes empirical studies that employ many different data collection
methods, from open-ended responses such as those we used in the study
described later in this article, to providing a scale from 0 (absolutely no
chance) to 10 (definitely will occur), and so on (Bassett & Lumsdaine,
2001; Budescu & Karelitz 2003; Kardes et al., 2001). Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact nature of miscommunication, we believe our
research begins to move us toward a better understanding of common problem areas and thus toward increased understanding of ways to achieve
shared meaning.
RESEARCH PURPOSE
Previous work on miscommunication has focused on nonachievement
of shared meaning. From studies based on pedagogical issues such as
classroom exercises (Holmes & Brewer, 2006) and cases (Brewer &
Holmes, 2006), to dramaturgical issues (Rosile, 2003), to customer satisfaction analysis (Turner & Krizek, 2006), the common thread is the desire
to improve interpersonal and/or organizational communication. The current article represents a transition from pedagogical aspects of overcoming miscommunication to more organizational concerns of improving
effectiveness and efficiency in the workplace.
Clarifying meaning in common terms
seems like an obvious way to increase
shared meaning in both business and
interpersonal settings, but these terms
are so common that usage is often
taken for granted, and context is not
always fully considered.
To begin addressing this transition, we adapt a framework introduced
by Coupland, Wiemann, and Giles (1991; see Table 1). Their Integrative
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Table 1.
Integrative Model of Levels of Analysis of
Miscommunication
Level Characteristics
1
2
3
4
5
6
Problem Status Awareness Level
Meaning transfer
Unrecognized
inherently flawed
Minor
Possibly, not
misunderstandings
necessarily
or misreadings routine;
recognized
to be expected
Presumed
Attributed to
personal
individual
deficiencies
lack of skill
or ill will
Goal referenced
Recognized as
(control, affiliation,
failure in
identity,
goal
instrumentality)
attainment
Group/cultural norm
Mapped onto
differences in
social
language and
identities
communication;
and group
predisposing
memberships
misunderstandings
Ideological framings
of talk; sociocultural
power imbalances
Participants
see status
quo only
Repairability
Participants
Not relevant
are unaware
For participants, Relevant at
low; at local
local level only
level for
researchers
For participants, Deficiencies
moderate;
can be
directed
fixed (e.g.,
to other
training)
Participants see
Ongoing
behavior’s
aspect with
strategic
relationship
implications
implications
Moderate; group Acculturation;
identities taken
out-group
for granted;
accommodation;
differences seen
sociocultural
as natural
learning
reflections of
group statuses
Participants
Only through
unaware but
critical analysis
researchers are
and resulting
hyperaware
social change
(ideology driven)
Source: Adapted from Coupland, Wiemann, and Giles (1991).
Model of Levels of Analysis of “Miscommunication” (Coupland et al.,
1991, pp. 12-13) is instructive on several fronts.
The framework these authors present describes each level of miscommunication along (a) problem status (i.e., attributions as to the reason for
this level of miscommunication), (b) awareness (i.e., do the participants in
a communication setting, and/or researchers studying communication
within that setting, recognize that miscommunication is a problem?), and
(c) repairability (i.e., can the miscommunication that is the root cause of
a set of problems be fixed?). The six levels of “miscommunication” help
researchers in recognizing that not all such problems in communicating
are equal in their importance and social significance. Thus, each of the six
levels has characteristics that involve different problems, awareness of
problems, and repairability.
Brewer, Holmes / OBFUSCATING THE OBVIOUS
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Much of the research we discuss above has taken place within the first
four levels of the Coupland et al. (1991) framework. Our previous work
(Holmes & Brewer, 2006; Brewer & Holmes, 2006) discovered that participants did not know that discrepancies in interpretations of meaning
were commonplace (consistent with Level 1 in the framework). These
same works also involve Levels 2 and 3 of the model (i.e., a focus on interpersonal issues and opportunities for training and development regarding
communication skills), with additional implications for Level 4 (the pervasiveness of such miscommunication and how to lower its occurrence or
even avoid it altogether). The first four levels of the framework are important for business communication because the awareness, improvement,
and relationship-building implications can guide managers in creating and
maintaining a better workplace culture, where wasted time and hurt feelings are mitigated. We address the last two levels of the framework as
well. These higher levels regard group and/or cultural differences (Level
5) and issues of power, ideology, and social change (Level 6).
Research Questions
We pose three research questions.
Research Question 1: Does common context lead to less ambiguity?
In conversations with participants after running our communication exercise, we
found that subjects believed a common context would prevent miscommunication
(Holmes & Brewer, 2006). This idea is based on two people talking and one using
common terms. Given that their conversation is centered on the same subject,
many felt that the result should be a lower level of ambiguity. Before this feedback, we had collected data based on individual subjects’ own interpretation of
each term, with no attempt at defining a context that everyone then addressed. In
this exploratory research, we collected data to begin investigating whether a common context will lead to less ambiguity.
Research Question 2: Is there a difference in variability between common
terms for time and common terms for probability?
The common terms used in previous communication research are from two
domains—probability and time. The terms used in this study stem from a communication training program (1987 Life Office Management Association
Telephone Training Program, Atlanta, Georgia), which we have drawn on previously (Holmes & Brewer, 2006), and are meant to be representative of everyday
language that is substituted for actual lengths of time and actual probabilities. Our
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research is aimed at improving communication (by lessening miscommunication)
in organizational settings. While the actual terms in both sets have shown the type
of variability that could lead to misunderstanding, research has not previously
been done to try to determine whether one or the other—that is, probability or
time—is a bigger problem area. We hope our data will help begin the process of
determining whether such a difference exists.
Research Question 3: Is there a difference in variability for the terms
based on demographic differences among the participants?
In conducting the communication exercise with hundreds of participants over several years, we have noted during the debriefing period that
many people base their interpretation of each term’s meaning on work
experience. For those participants who have had little or no such experience, we have heard debates between individuals and/or groups based on
their cultural upbringing, age, and gender. The Coupland et al. (1991)
framework is supportive of our rationale for Research Question 3 as well,
with such effects corresponding to the characteristics described for Levels
3, 4, and 5 of that model.
In this exploratory research, we also wanted to begin investigating
whether such anecdotal evidence is reflected in the data collected. If there
are such differences, managers could benefit from knowing more about
how miscommunication problems might differ based on the makeup of
their staff (e.g., number of men and women, number of international and
domestic workers, etc.) and/or the setting within which they manage (e.g.,
young, entry-level workers vs. a stable group of experienced staff; high vs.
low turnover; etc.). Thus, finding out whether such factors have a global
effect at all is an important first step.
METHOD
We collected data from a convenience sample of 345 graduate and
undergraduate students in communication and marketing classes at a
small southeastern university. For the initial phase of our research, we
used a communication exercise, conducted as part of classroom activities.
Open-ended responses were collected, as the terms for first probability
(always, never, probably, usually, often) and then time (ASAP, soon,
today, tomorrow, right away) were called out and placed on an overhead
transparency or other display. Students were asked to record their own
Brewer, Holmes / OBFUSCATING THE OBVIOUS
489
interpretation of the meaning of each term. To clarify the type of response
expected, we asked the subjects to simply record the probability (a number between 0 and 100) and time (number representing days, hours, minutes, etc.) that they would apply if they used the word always and so on
for the five probability and five time-based terms.
To investigate context effects (Research Question 1), we designed a
communication scenario intended to provide the common context noted as
a possible rationale for better communication of probability and time (see
Appendix). After designing the scenario, we used it as the basis for data
collection in the second phase of our research. We thus collected data
within three groups for addressing our research questions. These were
designated as follows: Group 1, open-ended response (no scenario provided, n = 160); Group 2, scenario-based response from manager’s perspective (n = 94); and Group 3, scenario-based response from customer’s
perspective (n = 91).
In addition to the participants’ responses to the probability and time
terms, we collected basic demographic data to enable a first look at the
possible differences referenced in the third research question. Participants
recorded the following information: years of full-time work experience,
whether they were a U.S. citizen, age, and gender.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
The main purpose of our research is to investigate, illustrate, and recommend methods for overcoming miscommunication problems. In this
exploratory effort to begin pursuing such results, we want to show how
easily miscommunication can occur and just as easily be corrected. Thus,
we concentrate on some descriptive statistics for the three groups on each
of the 10 terms used in the study (see Table 2).
In addition, to answer our research questions exploring whether there
were various group and/or individual differences across the terms, we conducted a multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) for each set of
terms. The first such analysis showed no difference among the three
groups on the set of five terms dealing with probability, while the second
MANOVA, for the time-based terms, did show an overall difference.
However, in the latter case, only two terms were contributing to this overall difference (today and right away), and these were significant only at
the .10 level (.08 and .086, respectively). Thus, while there was a small
statistical difference between open-ended and scenario-based responses
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Table 2.
Term
Always
Never
Probably
Usually
Often
ASAP
Soon
Today
Tomorrow
Right away
Mean and Standard Deviation by Group
Groupa
Mb
SD
1
2
3
1
2
3
1
2
3
1
2
3
1
2
3
1
2
3
1
2
3
1
2
3
1
2
3
1
2
3
91.15
90.68
90.62
13.80
8.29
12.69
61.33
56.42
61.42
69.54
67.94
64.62
63.38
62.17
59.08
18.65
14.62
14.58
140.61
46.09
42.74
11.96
9.14
10.79
31.29
31.71
34.76
3.91
9.47
8.15
15.33
15.31
13.70
25.24
15.38
25.34
17.24
17.74
18.48
15.91
17.39
18.46
17.23
21.76
19.93
72.07
30.06
27.41
848.02
44.74
45.30
8.23
7.95
8.99
12.41
14.73
20.26
17.69
20.14
15.90
a. Group 1, n = 160; Group 2, n = 94; Group 3, n = 91.
b. The mean is presented in percentages for the first five terms and in hours for the last
five terms.
for one set of terms, the practical meaning is that the common context did
not lead to much closer interpretations of either probability or time common terms.
The unit of analysis is an important consideration in the context of our
research on miscommunication. From a practical significance standpoint,
when looking at the range of the data for the common terms for probability, one can see that vast differences could occur in the percentages each
Brewer, Holmes / OBFUSCATING THE OBVIOUS
491
party to a conversation intends. Imagine that you are a new supervisor and
your own definitions of the common terms we used in our research are in
line with the reported means. In telling a subordinate that he will probably obtain a raise based on his performance, you thus mean there is about
a 60% chance of this outcome, while the subordinate who is only a couple of standard deviations away considers this statement a promise of a
near certainty.
Likewise, for the time-based terms, the reported units are hours. For
this example of the practical significance of our preliminary findings, let’s
look at the standard deviation for right away, which, from Table 2, we see
ranges from about 16 to 20 hours. If you use this term in asking a colleague for an update in preparation for meeting an important client, there
could be a large difference in meaning between you and him—perhaps as
much as the entire business day!
With regard to our first research question (Does common context lead
to less ambiguity?), the common context—based on the above analysis of
the responses—does not make a practical difference in the range of
responses to the terms’ meaning. Thus, it appears that clarifying the meaning of ambiguous terms is important for better understanding even if the
participants think they’re discussing the same subject.
Thus, it appears that clarifying the
meaning of ambiguous terms is important for better understanding even if
the participants think they’re discussing the same subject.
Regarding Research Question 2 (Is there a difference in variability
between common terms for time and common terms for probability?), the
preliminary data suggest that the more problematic terms are those dealing with time (Table 2). That is, with the exception of today, the time
terms have much larger standard deviations than do the terms for probability. For example, the two probability terms that suggest a particular
answer (based on their dictionary definitions) are always (100%) and
never (0%). However, in our experience, participants do not respond with
100% and 0%, respectively. Answers are in the 90% range for always and
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around 10% for never. The three other probability terms are strikingly
similar to each other, with responses ranging from about 60% to 70%.
Turning to the time-based terms, we find much more potential for miscommunication and conflict. The unit of analysis for these terms is hours.
Looking at ASAP and right away, we can see that although most definitions of these two terms connote a sense of immediacy, one standard deviation for ASAP ranges from just over 27 hours to 72 hours. In other words,
1 to 3 days of difference! The same is true for right away. While the
means for the three groups are the smallest (again, measured in hours) of
the time-based terms, one standard deviation for right away ranges from
16 to 20 hours. Thus, even with these two more closely matched terms
(relative to the other three time-based terms: soon, today, and tomorrow),
there is a great deal of potential for miscommunication. For example, in
asking a colleague for an important document you want later that same
day, suppose you tell him you “need it ASAP.” Just before leaving for a
meeting with a valued client, you drop by his office to pick it up and discover he is gone for the day, leaving you a note that he knows you need
the report “ASAP” and that he’ll have it to you the following morning. As
the data show, this miscommunication is not surprising if you actually
meant “in a few hours” or “by three o’clock today” but your colleague’s
idea of ASAP is 16 hours or more!
Research Question 3 (Is there a difference in variability for the terms
based on demographic differences among the participants? ) was posed to
focus on factors likely to be associated with miscommunication, based on
both our observations in conducting the exercise and in obtaining feedback
during debriefing of participants. However, a MANOVA showed no significant difference among the groups based on the four variables for which
we collected data (gender, number of years of work experience, age, and
U.S. citizen/non-U.S. citizen). Still, as with the standard deviations among
the three groups reported in Table 2, there are large ranges of responses for
all of the common terms in both the probability and the time categories.
For example, in Table 2, we report the mean for the term soon for Group
1 as 140.61 hours with a standard deviation of 848.02. These statistics
include one outlier—specifically, soon reported as meaning 1 year. We
included that number in our analysis, however, because during debriefing,
the participant who used that amount of time stated that in his experience,
soon had no real meaning and might as well be a year. In light of this, we
reran the analysis for Group 1 (open-ended responses) without that participant’s response; the mean dropped to 64.24 hours with a standard deviation
of 188.29. Even without such a large outlier, then, soon can lead to a wide
range of meanings for time.
Brewer, Holmes / OBFUSCATING THE OBVIOUS
493
RECOMMENDATIONS
To complement the workplace examples we provided within the discussion above, we next offer several general suggestions that can help
avoid ambiguities that lead to miscommunication. First, communicators
can train themselves not to use the probability terms or, at a minimum, to
conjoin them with the actual percentage (or ranges) they have in mind.
Similarly, for the time-based terms, communicators should use actual
dates and times instead of (or accompanying) these and other shorthand
terms for time.
Gaining better self-awareness of the language can help communicators
monitor whether they might slip into the use of the probability and/or
time-based terms. In so doing, they can catch themselves, clarify their
meaning immediately, and thus, avoid unpleasant effects of miscommunication. In monitoring language used in communication, another recommendation is to be aware that some people use these terms purposefully.
Whether or not counterparts are being guileful, careful listening can help
people detect such ambiguous language. The immediate response should
be to ask questions about what they mean—the key finding in our work is
that you should not assume others have the same definitions for words and
terms as you do. Incredulity (“How could he possibly have meant that?”)
or anger (“I’m as upset with you as the client was with me when I told her
I didn’t have the report!”) is useless.
To improve outcomes for the long term, communicators must be aware
of the sources of miscommunication, better manage their words, and be
alert when hearing or reading ambiguous language. Our research in relation to the Coupland et al. (1991) framework is an important guide here.
Across the six levels of the framework, avoiding ambiguity and detecting
and challenging others’ ambiguity can help communicators increase
awareness of the problem and arrive at corrective action (repairs).
LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE RESEARCH
We are in the preliminary stages of the research agenda and have thus
far used student subjects. We are taking an element of miscommunication
repair (column 4 of the Coupland et al., 1991, framework) and building
our research out to include the root causes of miscommunication and the
relevance of such issues for managers. Those wanting to investigate miscommunication and remedies for it should consider other subjects and
scenarios. For example, field experiments in workplace settings, in-depth
interviews, and case studies are possible future avenues.
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Another term often used to indicate these misunderstandings or different definitions for the same term is bypassing (Folsom, 2006; Palmeri,
2004; Sullivan, Kameda, & Nobu, 1991). Context and culture play a critical role in interaction and combating ambiguity. Sullivan and Kameda
(1982), for instance, cite an example of a misunderstanding because an
American worker interpreted the phrase “more than 25 units” to mean 26
or more units, but the Japanese manager interpreted the phrase to mean 25
or more units. This cultural difference coincides with Level 5 of the
Coupland et al. (1991) model. Researchers investigating the types of miscommunication we explore here might further explore the demographic
variables we examined. In addition, given the cynical view of the term
soon on the part of one participant, perhaps attitudinal constructs may be
introduced in future studies.
The common terms we have used thus far are by no means exhaustive
of the types of vague language at the heart of miscommunication. Rather,
they are a sampling of such terms, based on those used in a training exercise module. We have begun to explore other such terms by collecting subjects’ “favorite” equivocations and encourage other communications
researchers to explore other ambiguous terms as well.
APPENDIX
Communication Exercise Scenario
After reading the following paragraph, answer the questions that follow.
At 10:00 am on Tuesday, Ann and Jay went to Hometown Bank to apply for a loan for
a house they had made an offer on. They needed a $125,000 loan to go with the $50,000
they had saved. Although they told Robert, the loan officer, that they needed to close on
Friday, they didn’t tell him about the catch. The seller needed to close on Friday as she was
being transferred out of the country. Since Ann and Jay’s offer had been accepted, the
seller had received another offer for $165,000 cash. Thus, if Ann and Jay could not close
on Friday, the house would close on Monday with the buyer who had cash in hand.
Robert assured Ann and Jay, “Loans for people like you who have such a good down
payment and decent credit are always approved.” “I often talk with corporate headquarters;
in fact,” Robert continued, “We will probably know tomorrow.” Ann said, “I am really
excited about the house and want to make sure this goes smoothly.” Robert replied, “We
never have any problems in cases like this.” “What about the money?” Jay interjected.
“You will get that soon,” Robert said. “Usually, the customer can have the cash right away
once they have been approved.” “Will you rush this along for us?” asked Ann. “I’ll do it
today,” Robert assured them, “and then I’ll call you ASAP after I have an answer. Ann and
Jay left the bank to wait excitedly for Robert’s call.
(continued)
Brewer, Holmes / OBFUSCATING THE OBVIOUS
495
APPENDIX (continued)
After reading the above paragraph, participants were asked to put themselves
either in the place of Ann and Jay or in the place of Robert. Imagining themselves
under those circumstances, then, in one of those two roles, they were asked to
indicate what they would mean if they used the 10 terms below that are found in
the scenario.
Answer for these words in terms of probability (i.e., between 0% and 100%).
Always
_____
Never
_____
Probably
_____
Usually
_____
Often
_____
Answer for these words in terms of time (i.e., no. of minutes, hours, days, etc.).
ASAP
_____
Soon
_____
Today
_____
Tomorrow
_____
Right away _____
Note: See Brewer & Holmes, 2006.
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