…Thoughts on the reasons behind many of our communication challenges
I remember a story a senior colleague shared with me about something she experienced in the early 90s between a boss and his newly resumed subordinate who was on her first job. The boss wanted the new employee to scan and copy documents onto a CD ahead of an important client meeting but instead of telling her to do just that, he told her to “burn” the documents (office jargon). The subordinate was confused, did not ask clarifying questions, and went ahead to burn the documents. A few days before the meeting, the boss asked for the CD and the subordinate mentioned that she had burnt the documents and had disposed of the ashes. The boss was confused, “what ashes?” he asked. By the time the subordinate finished explaining, the boss was livid but he knew he had a share of the blame.
Using jargons can lead to communication problems. Think about it, how many times have you expressed an instruction using jargon that you assumed was commonplace only to have the person do the complete opposite?
I had an experience at my first job which first opened my mind to thinking about why we very often have challenges communicating with other people.
My boss at the time had brought her 5-year-old daughter, Moni, to work. I knew her, she knew me, I was not a stranger. Moni walked in waving a booklet of raffle tickets and after the customary oohs, aahs, and “oh, you’re such a big girl now”, I asked what the raffle tickets were for. Predictably, she had no idea (it was for a school fundraiser) so I just asked her to give me one ticket. Each ticket cost one hundred naira and as I didn’t have a hundred naira note, I gave her five hundred naira and waited for my change. Moni took my money, pocketed it, and made to leave the office. I wondered what was going on so I called her and asked for my change. She looked surprised and just stared at me. I asked again, and she burst into tears and ran to her mum’s office. I was perplexed.
Shortly after, my boss came into the office, Moni trailing behind, and asked what I had done to make her daughter cry. I gave a detailed explanation of what had transpired only for my boss to burst into laughter: I was totally confused. My boss, very calmly, explained that as Moni was only 5 years old, she had no understanding of the concept of giving change! The scales fell off my eyes! How did I not understand this immediately? Moni knew currency notes but she didn’t understand denominations so if I had given her a fifty naira note, for example, she would have taken it, trusting that was the correct note to take! Through this experience, I realised that we very often end up in sticky situations because we have failed to understand the person we are communicating with (or the person we are communicating with has failed to understand us) and thus, they (or we) don’t take the expected action.
So why then do we misunderstand one another? There are quite a few reasons I see, the most obvious being that we are speaking a language the other person doesn’t understand, but then, this is very obvious.
Other reasons could be due to cultural influences (indigenous and assumed), using jargons that others are not exposed to (as highlighted in the “burning the documents”), differences in literacy levels, and not forgetting the most recent challenge of the modern workplace, the generational divide. Addressing each of these reasons could be stand-alone topics by themselves so I will just share my thoughts on cultural influences.
In many Nigerian cultures, people tend to speak indirectly, i.e.: they tend not to say exactly what they mean. Conversely, other tribes do the opposite so you can imagine what would happen if two people from each of those tribes interacted. I saw something like this play out once at a client’s office. The Managing Director, female, Yoruba was waiting for one of her employees, female, Igbo to finalise a document which she needed to take for a meeting. The employee was hard at work on her laptop whilst the MD was pacing the room impatiently as she was running late. When the MD couldn’t take it anymore, she said to her employee “you’re too slow, get up and let me finish working on the document”. The employee didn’t even think twice, she promptly got up and made room for the stunned boss who had no plans of finishing work on the document! She had only commented to express her exasperation with the pace at which her employee was working!
This also reminds me of how the British (our colonial masters) communicate versus the Americans (our “media” masters), and how these two cultures have heavily influenced Nigerians. Brits tend to communicate indirectly as well, so for example, rather than issue an instruction, a boss would more likely suggest that you take an action (“I suggest you read that document again”). In reality, that suggestion is instruction and only a person who understands the culture will decode the true intentions. Americans however tend to be very direct and say what they mean without sugarcoating anything (“You better review that document a second time if you know what’s good for you”). We Nigerians can never decide whether we want to adopt the British or American culture or even if we should be influenced by either one (seeing as we have a myriad of cultures to adapt to).
But the one that gets me the most is when people say they have been “quoted out of context”, i.e.: they have said or written something and then they say they have been misunderstood. This is very possible because sometimes we use the wrong words or we don’t notice that what we have said could mean different things. However, what about a situation whereby what you have said is as clear as night and day? Can it still be misconstrued? Some people find it very convenient hiding under this explanation when what they have said or written has produced a result contrary to their expectation.
Overall, no matter what we say, we need to understand that what we don’t say often carries more weight. Non-verbal cues are quite important as some people tend to use them more often than most and this also arises from cultural influences. Our body language speaks far louder than our words can ever do. Imagine saying one thing and your facial expression shows something else. And there’s the “silent treatment” where one doesn’t even respond at all and that is probably the most confusing response to any conversation as you never know where the person stands in the discussion. Even though we often say silence means consent, we all know too well that this is not always the case.
Many of our troubles would never exist if we communicated properly in the first place. A wrong word here, failure to clarify an instruction there, confused emotions now and again, throw in some distractions for good measure: all of these can mar the intended meanings. If we all believe the best at first and give the benefit of the doubt, we can ease up on any tensions caused by miscommunication, and that is the way I see things today.