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How Can We Communicate Better in a World of “Easy” Communication?

By Rosanne Ullman June 22, 2023 Lifestyle

When texting was still pretty new, I had this text exchange with a friend about my missing cloth tote branded with a local grocery chain logo:

Me: I think I left my Dominick’s bag at your house last night. I brought the ice cream in it but must have left the bag. Can I come pick it up?

Friend: I didn’t notice, but I’ll look for it.

[Days pass.]

Me: Just wondering whether you ever found my Dominick’s bag.

[No reply. Very uncharacteristic of her.]

Me later that day: Never mind about the bag. It was in the back of my car.

Soon afterward when the friend and I were chatting by phone, I apologized for making her search for something that was in my car all along and was just an inexpensive cloth bag to begin with, not worth a lot of trouble.

“A cloth bag!” my friend exclaimed, having thought I’d meant an ordinary plastic bag from the grocery store. “That makes a lot more sense. I kept looking under the sink and asking my husband, ‘Do you know which of these bags Rosanne brought over?’ We couldn’t figure out why you wanted it back.”

I have been laughing about this ever since. I picture my friend kneeling under the sink, trying to figure out which brown bag was different from the others. I guess that’s why misunderstanding is a common ploy for sitcoms – but you probably don’t want it to play a major role in your real life.

When Knowledge Is a Bad Thing

In hindsight, it’s easy for me to see how this fiasco came about. I didn’t have a name for it until I did a little research, but I know now that I was demonstrating one of many “cognitive biases” that trip us up in communicating effectively.

Specifically, I was demonstrating the very common “curse of knowledge.” I knew exactly the bag I was looking for, but my friend knew nothing about that bag. How could I expect her to see it through my mind’s eye when I didn’t even provide a description?

Reach Out and Call Someone

Texting is a much-appreciated option for communicating all sorts of quick messages. But for a deep conversation, I think it falls short.

To avoid misunderstandings, it helps to have one of those telephone conversations we used to rely upon. It certainly cleared things up with my friend.

Phone conversations enable you to detect nuances of expression, plus you can exchange an occasional “uh huh” to indicate comprehension or agreement, or you can ask the person to clarify a point. The communication just has a better chance of conveying the intended meaning.

Do you ever just call someone out of the blue? More likely, you text at least a day ahead to make a “date” to talk. Our generation didn’t come up with this protocol, but we seem to be following suit. I’m rebelling!

One evening after dinner, in the middle of both a TV show and a Scrabble game with my visiting daughter, my phone rang. Recognizing the caller as a friend and occasional client, I took the call. No sooner had I greeted my caller with a friendly “hello” than I heard my daughter admonishing me: “Why in the world would you answer a phone call?”

I continued my phone conversation, caught up with my friend and got hired for a little editing work all in a quick 20 minutes. For me, interrupting my evening was more expedient than setting up a future time to talk.

More Options, More Problems

Even when all we need to do is send a quick message and texting is appropriate, we all know how auto-correct and “fat fingers syndrome” mess with us. Recently, my husband texted my daughter that we’d be arriving on July 39. At least that error was obvious.

Texting isn’t the only landmine for misconstrued messages. Despite the advances in communication tools and methods, it seems we’ve only added confusion to actual conversation.

We might deal with an important email hiding in the junk mail folder or a voicemail that escaped our notice. Maybe we forget that a particular work associate communicates only through Slack, or we fail to check the inbox of our LinkedIn account.

Cognitive Biases Influence Even Face-to-Face

Technology isn’t always the culprit. Here are just a few of the many cognitive biases that, even with in-person communication, work against us when we depend on our own observations to try to figure out people’s intentions:

Control Blindness

Control blindness refers to our tendency to overestimate people’s ability to control events. We then attribute intention to others’ actions where there may be none. For example, if a friend doesn’t “like” our Facebook post, we may think she wasn’t happy about what we wrote when what may have happened was that she didn’t see the post at all.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias gets a lot of press because of our current political climate. It’s human nature to seek out information and data that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and to ignore or dismiss information that contradicts those beliefs.

Spotlight Effect

Spotlight Effect happens when we overestimate how much attention people pay to our behavior and appearance. It’s easy to think someone else is reacting to something about us when the reaction can have nothing to do with us. Sometimes I have to remind myself that what I wear matters a lot more to me than to anyone else.

Naïve Cynicism

Naive Cynicism occurs when we believe that everyone has self-interest at heart. When people are nice to us, it’s easy to think there must be something in it for them.

Think It Through

Often, if someone’s behavior doesn’t make sense, it’s because we’re missing the explanation. Rather than assuming something and possibly never finding out that we’ve misjudged someone, we probably should ask for clarity. We’re all just trying to communicate the best we can. But it is a challenge.

How would you rate yourself in the communication department? What is your favorite communication medium? Do you prefer to text or do you like old-fashioned phone calls? What is your latest – or biggest! – communication mishap you’d like to share with the community?

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The Author

Rosanne Ullman has a long freelance writing career. She is the author of the children's picture book The Case of the Disappearing Kisses, an admin for the Facebook group "Grammar Matters," and the creator and instructor of the Write My Memoirs Grammar and Writing Course.

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