Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Why so many messages get misinterpreted

"The thing that upsets people is not what happens but what they think it means."
- Epictetus, Stoic philosopher of ancient Greece (born into slavery, his real name is unknown--epiktetos in Greek means "acquired.") (55–c.135)

Of course every message we receive must be interpreted by us as to determine its meaning and its impact on us.

But what if what we think a message means is not what the speaker or writer intended?

First of all, written messages may be more readily misinterpreted than spoken messages. It has been said that spoken messages come with facial expressions and body language that make misinterpretation less likely. It's also significant--but rarely mentioned--that face to face communication allows the speaker to react quickly if the receiver seems to have misinterpreted the message, while quick reaction is impossible with written messages.

There are people who read the first sentence of a written message and develop a mind set about the whole message based on those few words. What follows will simply confirm the reader's expectations, or the reader will interpret what follows in such a way as to ensure that the message is understood that way.

Some read through a whole message, but by the time they finish they can only remember the final sentence, so that is what they take as significant, how the final sentence impacts them.

These two ways of understanding messages explain why instructors recommend that any strong message should begin with something positive and end with something positive, preferably with the two positives being different from each other. Some call them warm fuzzies.

Some will fix on one sentence in a message--for no well-understood reason--and interpret the whole message based on that one sentence. That one sentence is all they remember, so that is all that counts to them. Heaven help the writer who uses irony when the reader is one of these. One sentence can easily be taken out of context in such a way that the message is understand as completely different from what the writer intended.

A few will even take part of a sentence--nothing else-- and twist the interpretation of the rest of the message around that. This practice is often used by those who want to blindside the writer with arguments that have nothing to do with the topic but more to do with the political agenda they want to convey. These mud slinger want to disrupt and upset people more than anything else.

Can we ever educate people in such a way that written messages will seldom be misunderstood? This is highly unlikely. I have received high marks on postgraduate papers I wrote that were misguided or weak and poor marks on well researched and presented papers. The differences were in the minds of the markers. Interestingly, I never received a poor mark on a live presentation that was made to a group, even if the material was the same as might have received a lower mark in written-only form.

Now comes the part that is hard to swallow. We can write messages that are so thorough that they are extremely difficult for the reader to misinterpret. However, these tend to be so long that the reader will get bored or annoyed at how much they must read.

Well, this would be a good point to stop then, wouldn't it?

Bill Allin
'Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems,' long enough to be understood, easy enough to read and cheap enough for everyone to benefit from it.
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