Nothing is so simple that it cannot be misunderstood

Talk is cheap, but our daily environment is fraught with cultural, language and emotional barriers leading to major misunderstandings.
Issue date: 11 July 2008

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I bumped into a farmer’s wife a few days back and she told me she’d enjoyed a recent column. I thanked her, and as I am always on the look-out for new topics, I asked her what their current biggest farming problem was. I was expecting to hear the normal litany of Eskom, Telkom, government, minimum wages and the like, but she didn’t hesitate. “Communication,” she said. “We just don’t seem to be getting it right and sorting out the confusion it causes takes so much time.” It got me thinking and I’ve been doing a bit of research on the subject. It’s been a shock.

Students of communication have neatly identified the barriers to effective communication and when you have a look at it, especially in this rainbow nation of ours, it’s surprising we’re able to communicate with each other at all. And what’s frightening is that it’s all quite true.
Language barriers: In the early 80s in Swaziland one could hear siSwati, English, Afrikaans, Portuguese, Italian and German spoken on farm radios. It’s not so cosmopolitan today, but in Mozambique recently I heard Shangaan, • Portuguese, English and Afrikaans on a radio network. With 11 official languages in South Africa and millions of immigrants, many of them working on farms, we have a very complicated environment for good communication. Interpretation barriers: Even if the same word is used, because language is only a symbolic representation of a concept or phenomenon, the same words will be interpreted differently by different people. Many factors affect how an individual attributes meaning to particular words, and no two people attribute exactly the same meaning to the same words.
Cultural barriers: Given the myriad of different cultures we have to deal with in the workplace, this can be a real communication killer. Effective communication requires deciphering values, motives, aspirations and assumptions that operate across cultural lines. The opportunity for miscommunication in cross-cultural situations like this is plentiful.
Gender barriers: I don’t have to tell you about the distinct differences in speech patterns between men and women. We joke about it, but it’s the source of many difficulties. Men talk in a linear, logical and compartmentalised way, features of left-brain thinking. Woman talk more freely mixing logic and emotion, features of both sides of the brain. Men are truly from Mars and women from Venus when it comes to speech.
Perception barriers: Even if we use words that mean the same to each of us, we all see the world differently. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t need to communicate. Remember our perception becomes our reality.
Emotional barriers: Major barriers to open and free communication are the emotional ones of fear, mistrust and suspicion. Many people hold back their thoughts and feelings because they feel vulnerable. While some caution may be wise in certain relationships, excessive fear of what others might think stunts effective communication. It’s little wonder that we have some problems. But what’s the solution? There are no easy answers, but there are some things you can do about it. Let’s have a look at some of them next time. Contact Peter Hughes on (013) 745 7303 or e-mail [email protected]. |fw