Ali Girard


Putting Theory into Practice: Understanding Misunderstandings

Do you ever find yourself wondering how someone could have missed the point of your email? Why they went a different direction when you provided clear instructions? Or why they reacted badly to a seemingly innocuous message? The real question at the heart of all of these is:

“Why didn’t they receive my message the way that I intended them to?”

When we craft a message, whether it’s spoken, written, or otherwise, we put more than words into it. According to cultural theorist Stuart Hall we “encode” our messages with our assumptions and biases, which are informed by our culture, past experiences and the information immediately available to us. The recipient then “decodes” the message according to their assumptions and biases. Hall describes three different ways a person could decode a message:

  1. Dominant: The receiver of the message shares the same understandings and cultural biases, or “code,” as the sender, and they reproduce the intended meaning of the message. The sender and receiver are “on the same page,” so to speak.
  2. Negotiated: The receiver acknowledges the message, but does not accept it in the exact way that the sender intended. They modify it in ways that reflect their own experiences and interests.
  3. Oppositional: The receiver understands the literal meaning, but they reject it because they do not share the same “code.” They instead re-frame the message to fit their understanding.

Misunderstandings arise from the latter two. For example, there could be three reactions to the statement: “Justin Bieber was caught driving under the influence of alcohol. That’s wrong.” Person A may agree whole-heartedly (“yes, drinking and driving is wrong”). Person B may be slightly sympathetic (“drinking and driving is wrong, but Bieber didn’t have a normal childhood and I can see why this would happen”). Person C, a “Belieber,” may understand the statement, but reject it (“Don’t hate! Justin looks so good in his mug shot #FreeBieber”).


How you shouldn’t apply this information.

The Takeaway:

People encode and decode messages using their biases and experiences. We can use this knowledge to avoid misunderstandings when we craft messages in the workplace by doing the following :

  1. Developing and using a business vocabulary to define intended meanings (helping to ensure we are using the same “code”);
  2. Explicitly stating assumptions that are made (things that may seem obvious to you, such as requiring a timely response, may not be obvious to others); and
  3. Carefully considering how the situation a recipient is in might influence the way that they decode a message.
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