A Terrible Misunderstanding Essay

Heidi Burgess

Original Publication September 2003, updated June 2013. Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in August, 2017.

Current Implications

This article talks about misunderstandings between different cultures...particularly highlighting high-context cultures with low-context cultures. We are now seeing in the United States, how there can be cultural misunderstandings between groups that appear on the surface to be quite similar. More...

Social conflicts often involve some misunderstanding. Parties in conflict communicate by what they say (or do not say) and how they behave toward each other. Even normal interaction may involve faulty communication, but conflict seems to worsen the problem. When two people are in conflict, they often make negative assumptions about "the other." Consequently, a statement that might have seemed innocuous when two parties were friends might seem hostile or threatening when the same parties are in conflict.

Sources of Misunderstanding

All communication has two parts: a sender and a receiver. The sender has a message he or she intends to transmit, and s/he puts it in words, which, to her/him, best reflect what s/he is thinking. But many things can intervene to prevent the intended message from being received accurately.

If the communication is verbal, tone of voice can influence interpretation. The boss's words, "Hey, I noticed you were taking an especially long break this morning," could be interpreted as an attack if she or he said that in a disapproving tone, while the comment might be seen as a minor reminder about office rules if it was said in a friendly way. If the employee has a health problem that sometimes requires long breaks, the comment might have even been a friendly inquiry about what was happening and whether the employee needed any help. Here, tone of voice as well as situational and relationship factors would influence the interpretation of the message.

Nonverbal cues also are important. Is the sender's posture open and friendly, or closed and cold? Is her facial expression friendly or accusatory? All of these factors influence how the same words will be received.

In addition to how the message is sent, many additional factors determine how the receiver interprets the message. All new information we learn is compared with the knowledge we already have. If it confirms what we already know, we will likely receive the new information accurately, though we may pay little attention to it. If it calls into question our previous assumptions or interpretation of the situation, we may distort it in our minds so that it is made to fit our world view, or we may dismiss the information as deceptive, misguided, or simply wrong.

S.Y. Bowland describes how subtle racial or gender bias can lead to misunderstandings.

If the message is ambiguous, the receiver is especially likely to clarify it for him or herself in a way which corresponds with his or her expectations. For example, if two people are involved in an escalated conflict, and they each assume that the other is going to be aggressive and hostile, then any ambiguous message will be interpreted as aggressive and hostile, even if it was not intended to be that way at all. Our expectations work as blinders or filters that distort what we see so that it fits our preconceived images of the world. (Conflict theorists call these filters "frames." See the essay on Frames, Framing, and Reframing for more information.)

An analogy can be made to an experiment that tested people's interpretation of visual cues. When people were given eyeglasses that turned the world upside-down, they had to suffer through with upside-down images for a week or two. After that, their brains learned to reverse the images, so they were seeing things right-side up again. The same thing happens when we hear something we "know" is wrong. Our brains "fix" it so that it appears as we expect it to.

Cultural differences increase the likelihood of misunderstanding as well. If people speak different languages, the danger of bad translation is obvious. But even if people speak the same language, they may communicate in different ways.

Common differences are between high-context and low-context communication. Low-context communication stands on its own; it does not require context or interpretation to give it meaning. High-context communication is more ambiguous. It requires background knowledge and understanding (context), in addition to the words themselves, for communication. While everyone uses both kinds of communication, Western cultures tend to use low-context communication more often, while Eastern and Latin American and African cultures tend to use high-context communication. If such differences are not understood and adjusted for, misunderstanding is almost inevitable.[1]

Frank Blechman states that surprises offer the intervenor a chance to re-assess the assumptions he/she has made about a conflict.

Culture also affects communication by influencing the recipients' assumptions. As described above, our minds try to twist incoming information to make it fit in our worldview. Since different cultures have very different worldviews, cross-cultural communication is especially likely to change meaning between sender and receiver, as the sender may have a very different worldview from the receiver.

Given our tendency to hear what we expect to hear, it is very easy for people in conflict to misunderstand each other. Communication is already likely to be strained, and people will often want to hide the truth to some extent. Thus the potential for misperception and misunderstanding is high, which can make conflict management or resolution more difficult.

How to Avoid Misunderstanding

In conflict situations, avoiding misunderstanding takes a lot of effort. Roger Fisher and William Ury list four skills that can improve communication in conflict situations.

  • The first is active listening. The goal of active listening, they say, is to understand your opponent as well as you understand yourself. Pay close attention to what the other side is saying. Ask the opponent to clarify or repeat anything that is unclear or seems unreasonable (maybe it isn't, but you are interpreting it wrong). Attempt to repeat their case, as they have presented it, back to them. This shows that you are listening (which suggests that you care what they have to say) and that you understand what they have said. It does not indicate that you agree with what they said, nor do you have to. You just need to indicate that you do understand them. [2]
  • Fisher and Ury's second rule is to speak directly to your opponent. This is not considered appropriate in some cultures, but when permitted, it helps to increase understanding. Avoid being distracted by others, or by other things going on in the same room. Focus on what you have to say, and on saying it in a way that your opponent can understand.
  • Their third rule is to speak about yourself, not about your opponent. Describe your own feelings and perceptions, rather than focusing on your opponent's motives, misdeeds, or failings. By saying, "I felt let down," rather than "You broke your promise," you will convey the same information, in a way that does not provoke a defensive or hostile reaction from your opponent. This is often referred to as using "I-statements" or "I-messages," rather than "you-messages." You-messages suggest blame, and encourage the recipient to deny wrongdoing or to blame in return. I-messages simply state a problem, without blaming someone for it. This makes it easier for the other side to help solve the problem, without having to admit they were wrong.
  • Fisher and Ury's fourth rule is "speak for a purpose." Too much communication can be counterproductive, they warn. Before you make a significant statement, pause and consider what you want to communicate, why you want to communicate that, and how you can do it in the clearest possible way.

Other rules might be added to these four. One is to avoid inflammatory language much as possible. Inflammatory language just increases hostility and defensiveness; it seldom convinces people that the speaker is right. (Actually, it usually does just the opposite.) Although inflammatory remarks can arouse people's interest in a conflict and generate support for one's own side, that support often comes at the cost of general conflict escalation. Making one's point effectively without inflammatory statements is a better option.

Likewise, all opponents should be treated with respect. It doesn't help a conflict situation to treat people disrespectfully; it just makes them angry and less likely to listen to you, understand you, or do what you want. No matter what you think of another person, if they are treated with respect and dignity -- even if you think they do not deserve it -- communication will be much more successful, and the conflict will be more easily managed or resolved. Engaging in deep conversations (through problem-solving workshops or dialogues) can also reduce misunderstanding by improving relationships, by providing more context to communication, and by breaking down stereotypes that contribute to negative characterizations or worldviews. The more effort one makes to understand the person sending the message, the more likely the message will be understood correctly.

Current Implications

This article talks about misunderstandings between different cultures...particularly highlighting high-context cultures with low-context cultures. We are now seeing in the United States, how there can be cultural misunderstandings between groups that appear on the surface to be quite similar. Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. are mostly all low-context communicators, yet they seem to be almost completely talking past each other. Each sees the world in fundamentally different ways--their interests are different, their understanding of facts is different, their reasons for advocating various policies are different.

Certainly some of this difference is the result of media manipulation, which spawns not only misunderstanding, but distrust and even hatred as a result of propaganda. Extreme stereotyping of "the other," also prevents effective cross-group communication, so when communication between groups occurs (which is becoming increasingly rare as we self-segregate into different parts of the country), the messages are very likely to be misinterpreted.

Much needs to be done to get the right and the left talking at all. But once they start, mediators or facilitators are going to be needed to try to reduce misunderstandings and build a groundwork for coexistence and tolerance.

This is one area where every individual can make a difference. When we talk to our family members who have different belief systems, for example, take care to use good conflict communication skills (see particularly the articles on empathic listening and I-messages) among others, instead of escalatory communication. This grave conflict within the United States is only going to be defused (if it is), one conversation at a time--and it is incumbent upon all of us to start having those disarming, de-escalatory conversations.

Heidi Burgess, August, 2017.

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[2] Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture. (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1971)

[2] We have more detail on active listening on this website in an article called empathic listening--because the author argued that empathy and listening were too closely linked to write two different articles--so he combined them into one.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi. "Misunderstandings." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/misunderstandings>.

Additional Resources

When we travel (or have people over), it’s as if we’re asking to make a fool of ourselves. Don’t point, don’t give the thumbs up, don’t try to kiss people on the lips after they kiss your cheeks — are we that socially awkward? Check this Reddit thread out for more. We’re all asking for forgiveness!

1. This guy, though

For me it was when I was talking to a co-worker who married an African woman. He said he wanted a dog but his wife refused to let him get one. He went on to say it’s because in the village where she grew up, they looked at dogs differently than we do here.

I replied, “Oh, is it because they eat them?”

He looks at me in disgust and says “Jesus, NO, they don’t fucking EAT them man! The dogs are used to protect the village and they are usually pretty vicious so she’s scared of them. Eat them? REALLY?”

I felt like the ignorant white guy that day.

2. Whoa

The only time my (Japanese) grandfather yelled at anyone was when my mother wasn’t slurping her soup because it was making my grandmother upset by not doing so. When she tried to explain that it is rude in western culture he roared back at her, “WHEN IN ROME, DO AS ROMANS DO!”

Granted, this was the same grandfather that learned english by memorizing one page of the dictionary at a time front and back and then eating it to ‘internalize’ it. I miss him.

3. The moment you realize it and feel really, really silly

My mom really liked the fried noodles that were served with soup at this asian restaurant. She asked what they were called, and decided to tell everyone about the “Kwan Chi noodles.” It was a good while before she realized the waitress was just saying “Crunchy Noodles” with an accent.

4. And the guy next to him with the assist

Went to a fancy Thai place for a sort-of-formal business dinner. When it comes time for the dessert, the waitress described a very delicious-sounding chocolate creme brulee called Mi-Raj. When it comes time for me to order I ask for the Mi-Raj and she looks at me kind of confused. I repeat myself with again no response from the waitress. The guy next to me finally pipes up with “He wants the Mirage.”

5. A “cultural misunderstanding”

I met a French girl and when she approached me to salut she kissed me in the cheek, I quickly retreated to talk normally but she moved forward approaching my other cheek which she kissed as well. At that point I was a little bit unaware of what was going on and backed a little more to try to talk normally but she kept moving forward to kiss me again in the other cheek… I was kinda confused but smiling and then since I saw her smiling and looking me straight I kinda thought she wanted to make out right there, so this time it was me who went forward and tongue kissed her in front of everybody, her boyfriend included. The rest you can imagine.

6. Yeah, I read that in Sofia Vergara’s voice too

I was at a conference and we had brought in people from all over Latin America. I was a sort of host and group leader for a pack of them. After the evening activities one night, one of the very pleasant female participants and I were riding the elevator up to our hotel rooms and I was already picturing her in some acrobatic positions, you know, as one does. As we were getting off and preparing to go to our separate rooms, she leaned up and kissed me on the cheek out of nowhere like it was nothing. Well you don’t have to tell me twice. She was good looking and maybe 7 or 8 years older and I figured there we were in a hotel and nobody knew we were alone together and we both spoke the international language of horizontal mambo, so I just went into hookup autopilot and leaned in and started giving her a good one. After a brief moment she pulled away startled with this look on her face like (8O. And the look on mine was :-D until I saw her confusion and mumbled out something like, “Oh! I… I thought you… I mean, when you…” as i pointed at my cheek. And she got it and blushed was like, “I jhoost saye goodnieeght,” while gesticulating a bit as she backed up. Aaaand I didn’t get laid. Didn’t get fired either, though, so that’s nice. I kept hoping she’d change her mind after the initial shock and call me but no dice. The next morning I just pretended nothing had happened but she gave me a kind of amused eyes-down look when she saw me. Ahem.

7. Friend screwed him over

I was sleeping over at my friend’s house, and I wanted to get a bowl of cereal. I told my friend, and he said “okay, go for it.” I got my bowl, ate, and returned to the festivities after putting the bowl in the sink like a civilized person.

Everything was fine… until the morning when I heard a scream. It was his mother, and she was freaking out about the bowl. She saw the spoon in it, and putting two and two together found out that I had eaten cereal out of it. Apparently, these were special meat bowls, as they belonged to Orthodox Jews. No dairy can touch these bowls, lest their kosherness be compromised.

She wanted me to bury the bowl. It was pretty crazy.

8. Hooked a sister up

This was more a cultural understanding. I was in Istanbul a couple months ago. I started my period and ran out of the supplies I brought. I had no clue where to buy them from as I hadn’t seen a grocery store around our hotel. I had noticed a little corner store so walked over there. They sold things like toilet paper, so I figured they would have what I needed. I walk up to the guy at the register and asked if he spoke English. He shook his head and started talking in Turkish. I’ve looked all around the store but can’t find any pads or tampons anywhere. I put a hand on my chest and say “for me.” I need something “just for me.” He gave me a nod, reached under the counter and wrapped something up. I paid and left with a mysterious newpaper wrapped bundle still not sure if I got what I needed. When I got back to my hotel I unwrapped the package to find pads. It was a good day.

9. The worst timing ever

When the recent earthquake hit in Japan, I was at the Narita Airport on a layover. Part of the airport was damaged, and they shoved everyone in the airport into a single terminal as the examined the entire airport for structural damage. (I should mention that the roads were shut down, so there was no leaving the airport.) We ended up being kept in the terminal for a good 24 hours, during which time my period decided to pay a visit. I had to make do with toilet paper, but given the chaos that was happening to the rest of the Japanese people, I didn’t really think I had much to complain about.

Finally, they began letting us into other areas of the airport, and rescheduling flights. They opened one general goods shop, and I wandered in, pretty desperate for something, anything. (At this point, most of us hadn’t slept or showered for 2 days.) I tried asking one of the staff for feminine products, but none of them spoke any English. Finally, after pointing at myself several times and saying, “Tampon. Woman. Medicine.” one of the girls working understood. She ran behind the counter, made a phone call, the came back to me with a little pamphlet with a map of the airport on it. She pointed to a little shop on the far side of the airport, way to hell and gone. There was a little cross symbol there. Then she pointed at my nethers, gave me the thumbs up, and handed me the map.

The phone call she had made was to get someone to open the pharmacy for me. By the time I had wandered over there, the metal grate was up, and some fat guy had already bought toothpaste.

10. Whoops

American here. I was studying in Vienna, Austria during college. Halloween rolled around and a bunch of us decided to get dressed up for the night. I lived quite a bit away from downtown to had to take public transportation to get to where my friends were.

That night I learned 2 things: 1) Austrians don’t dress up for Halloween. 2) A 6’3″ werewolf complete with fangs and fake blood scares the shit out of most everyone taking public transportation in Vienna.

11. This is going to make you cringe really, really hard

My vegan friend would wear this this t-shirt that said “Murder King” (a stab at Burger King’s meat) all the time. He lived by it, would always tell us the horror stories from the slaughterhouses he protested at.

So we walk into this dinner buffet, and everyone just stops and stares at us, giving us these mean ass looks with faces of shock, disgust and rage. Before he said anything, we noticed a higher than normal attendance of black people at this buffet. Yep. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Fastest he ever walked out of a restaurant.

12. But you kept following?

I had a gay, Indian coworker (which in itself was a whole hodgepodge of mixed up stereotypes) who once invited me out to “eat his curry” on his lunch break. He told me it was in his car in the parking garage, and I started sweating a little cause he kept winking at me and licking his lips and shit. I followed him regardless cause I figured there was no way he was gonna make me eat out his ass or something in the fucking parking garage on our lunch breaks, right?

So we get to the parking garage and he tells me he’s on the fifth floor but he “hates elevators,” so he makes his way to the stairs and I notice he keeps his butt eye-level with me as I come up behind him. I really started getting nervous then. We finally made it to his level and he walks me over to his car, unlocks the door, and pulls out a giant tray of homemade curry.

I started laughing, and he was like, “What’s so funny?” I said “Dude, I thought you were gonna, you know, try to make me suck your dick or something.”

“Ewww. You’re not even close to my type. Here, grab a plate.”

That stung more than it should have.

13. This is really funny

My co-worker is from China. This sometimes leads to interesting mistakes…

One day he came in happy that he joined a new club. When asked what kind, he said, “Fisting!”


“Yes! It’s great! You should join too!”

“Are you sure it’s a fisting club?”

“Yeah! It’s really cool!”

“So… uh… what do you do at this club?”

“Work out and stuff.”

“Ooohhh!!! You mean “fitness”, not “fisting””

“No! Fisting. You know.”

“I really don’t think that means what you think it means…”

“What does it mean?”

“I can’t explain it. Just look it up on google images.”

“Oh my god! Why?!?!?! Why would someone do that? Why?!?!?”

(it was an image of a dude by himself…)

“Needless to say he doesn’t call it a fisting club anymore…”

14. Social freedom in Kenya

I spent time in Kenya, where people freely picked their nose. They’d look you right in the eye while having a conversation, digging for nose gold.

Initially I was offended, but I quickly learned to love the freedom of it, and did it without regard. When I got back to the States, I learned quickly that job interviews are not the location to pull bats out of the cave.

15. I never even realized Ped Xing could be a name

I asked my American friend who ‘Ped Xing’ was. I was pretty new to the US, and kept seeing this name on streets everywhere. I figured he was some famous Chinese guy widely revered in America, and decided to confirm the reason for his popularity.

16. Just bit it to no one in particular

I bit my thumb in 16th-century Verona. How awkward.

17. Oh, so that’s why they were staring at me

Not exactly cultural, but… When I was teaching in Tanzania I studied Swahili pretty hardcore. Studying so fast, I was bound to confuse some verbs. “Tembea” means “to walk” in Swahili, while “tombea” means “to fuck”.

Making conversation with dozens of villagers in a day (in the villages you are expected to socialize with almost everyone), I repeatedly told several groups of people that I was tired from fucking all day in the intense heat. People laughed uncomfortably, but then I thought I was just making a grammar mistake.

I told my entire host family, including their four small children. I told my students, a roomful of 4th-graders. I told farmers I met on the road, young men fixing motorcycles, my friends at a barber shop. I told the old women’s sewing circle, one of the most respected institutions in the village. It wasn’t until I was saying it to a bilingual kindergarten teacher in front of his entire class that he stopped me, mid-sentence, and told me in English what I was saying.

18. Say it loud and proud

When I moved to Mexico (I was 13 or so, ended up fluent but at this point I certainly wasn’t.) I was going to a birthday part for my friends brother (who I of course had a crush on)… I fell in the street walking down the hill towards their house and banged up my knee pretty bad. I walk in the door of the house, and announce to a living room full of people who I didn’t know, including the boy I like and all of his friends, “Cagé!” Silence. I repeat, louder, “Me cagé en la calle!”.

Silence, then laughter. Caer means to fall. Cagar, however, means to shit. I said loudly and proudly that I shat myself in the street.

19. Probably made his day

I was in Spain traveling for a few weeks with my Sis who was living there. I went in to a bar/bakery? to order a couple pastries. There was a bunch of rolls on a shelf behind the bar but only one kind had a little sign hanging from the shelf under them that said ‘something something borrachos’. I didn’t necessarily want those, but they were the only labeled ones, so naturally I waved the guy behind the counter and ordered “dos borrachos por favor”. I had to lean up close behind a couple patrons at the bar because the little place was packed with old timers sipping coffees and chatting.

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