Miscommunication

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C. David Mortesen

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
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  • Dedication

    To my wife and three children: Morgan, Deborah, Lance, and Brooke

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    Preface

    Human interaction can be analyzed from any number of different angles. Our interest is primarily with the capacity and willingness of young adults to use complex linguistic skills to carry out a host of practical and pragmatic concerns in concert with the efforts of other people. We want to know how complex projects, activities, and routines of sense-making practice work or function when things go smoothly and everything turns out right. We also want to understand what happens when things go badly or get out of synch. At issue is the impact of the sheer complexity of forces and factors that make things turn out the way they do, for better or for worse. Such a recognition underscores the advantage of being in a good position to examine the nuts and bolts of what is said or done to acquire or preserve a tradition of high-quality performances. At issue is an important distinction between largely effective forms and faulty forms of face-to-face interaction. At the center of the drama is the core issue of how mutually accessible clusters or networks of individuals manage to move into or out of varying states, degrees, or gradations of difficulty and perplexity with one another.

    The prevailing conditions may be more or less favorable to the shared pursuit or fulfillment of productive outcomes. We equate a favorable communicative atmosphere with the opportunity to construct a wide spectrum of agreements and understandings as the shared basis for an enduring working consensus. In contrast, largely unfavorable conditions are associated with a succession of highly protracted or deeply involving forms of misinterpretation that promote a wide spectrum of disagreements and misunderstandings. Our main objective is to assess the prospects for constructive change of those social settings that operate under mostly unfavorable conditions into those with better odds or options for acquiring, preserving, or sustaining a favorable range of opportunities for genuine human encounter. A long-range goal is to promote a greater measure of communicative literacy for every human being on the face of the globe.

    The concept of miscommunication is very tricky to define. How can one describe (to someone else) what proves so difficult to figure out in the first place? One starting point is an initial presumption. Human beings are ordinarily quite sensitive to the larger issue of what transpires when things go well or badly. By this standard, acts or episodes of effective human encounter occur whenever someone (observer) interprets what someone else (participant) expresses in a clear, cogent, and coherent manner.

    This is akin to demonstrating how the personal vocabulary/idiom of one person can be readily translated/interpreted/integrated into the vocabulary/idiom of any other. In other words, successful communication is a collective and collaborative achievement of the highest order. Hence the basic task is to work to improve the clarity and coherence of what we express or convey before other people. At issue are the basic dynamics at work within and across a wide spectrum of face-to-face interactions that somehow fall short (of some imposed standard) or miss the mark in a particularly telling or striking way. The study of miscommunication admits that sometimes things make no sense at all.

    This book is organized around a basic set of themes. The essential progression is from abstract matters of theory to those of specific refinement and application. Relevant considerations are presented in three stages. First is a broad theoretical conception of the conditions that are necessary for various acts or episodes of miscommunication to occur. Second is the issue of how the theoretical conception of miscommunication in question applies to any number of salient conditions in which an array of agreements, disagreements, understandings, and misunderstandings come to light. Third is a concern with individual effort and shared struggle to improve the quality or substance of face-to-face interaction with fellow creatures like ourselves.

    To these ends, the first four chapters present a broad theoretical conception of the subject of human miscommunication and the problematic use of words and gestures in public settings. Here we make a sharp distinction between the intrinsic features of observable conditions and the tacit consequences of such conditions being in place. In effect, the structure of intentional action leaves behind an imprint, a residue, or substratum of unintended or unforeseen consequences. Therefore, Chapters 1 through 4 focus on the negotiated coproduction of highly indistinct, inaccurate, unclear, or confused modes of (a) self-expression and (b) interpretive response.

    Chapter 1 examines the impact of faulty implication on the form and content of shared performance. The concept of implication refers to any unspoken or unstated urge, desire, or intention that serves to color or skew the way we see specific and concrete things in the context of our subsequent encounters with other human beings. Here what is at stake is the composite impact of faulty (a) assumptions, (b) inferences, (c) expectations, (d) reflections, and the imposition of (e) extreme forms of attributional error in personal accounts of success or failure. It is useful, therefore, to examine the outer limits of metacommunication—in which the subject of communication is transformed into both the subject and the object of what takes place at the same time. To this end, Chapters 2, 3, and 4 examine the emergence of certain basic forms of (a) psychological or cognitive distortion in (1) the way in which individuals choose to express themselves and/or (2) the way in which other people interpret or take specific initiatives into account, (b) interpersonal disruption in the give-and-take or ebb-and-flow of conversation, and (c) linguistically based confusion over the definition and direction of subsequent actions. Taken together, a gradual or sudden buildup of a stockpile of faulty assumptions, cognitive distortions, interpersonal disruptions, and linguistic confusions serves to place an artificial and fabricated limit on the overall degree of our effectiveness as human interactants.

    Chapters @5 and 6 make a case for the overarching theme. We contend that the routine (re) production of a steady stream of faulty implications, when combined with distorted, disrupted, or confused modes of shared activity, is likely to promote a climate of disagreement and misunderstanding among the respective parties. As a consequence, the emergence of either frequently repeated or highly pronounced acts or episodes of misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and miscommunication tends to weaken or erode our ability and willingness to maintain close ties with other people. The possibility of profound miscommunication is not to be ruled out at any point along the way. In light of these perplexing conditions, Chapter 7 invokes the dual concepts of obtainable and realistic standards to explore multiple possibilities for turning specific matters of personal liability into shared resources for mutual gain. The final objective is to improve the conditions in which we encounter one another on a daily basis.

    A long list of acknowledgments is in order. It has been a privilege to be a professor of communication science, in the Department of Communication Arts, at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, for more than a quarter of the twentieth century. From the insight gained through personal contact with a total of some 20,000 students or more, it is possible, perhaps, to get a better glimmer of what is at stake within the framework of such a universal and inexhaustible form of living subject matter. A university-sponsored Human Subjects Committee offered steady guidance and direction to ensure the personal anonymity of those who participated in the study reported here. In addition, faculty members in communication science were a source of collective inspiration in a quest for more exacting and rigorous methods and standards of textual analysis, evaluation, and assessment. Linda Henzl maintained a joyful and receptive spirit while preparing an accurate computerized transcript of personal accounts. We are grateful to Sophie Craze, Margaret Seawell, and Renée Piernot at Sage, and Janet E. Brown for Sage, who did everything possible to fulfill the promise of the project from the initial phase to the final stage of production. In addition, several anonymous reviewers provided insightful, tough-minded, and penetrating comments about specific concerns with initial drafts.

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    About the Authors

    C. David Mortensen is Professor of Communication Science in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. He is the author of many books on communication and conflict, including Communication: The Study of Human Interaction; Violence and Communication: Public Reactions to an Attempted Presidential Assassination; and Problematic Communication: The Construction of Invisible Walls. He is currently writing Misunderstanding Other People and The Search for Common Ground.

    Carter M. Ayres is a psychologist for the Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, school system. He is interested in the application of humanistic psychology to problematic circumstance in adult-child interaction.


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