Have you ever been in a business meeting where your expectations didn’t match those of your counterparts?Perhaps mistrust or frustration ensued.You’re left wondering if you did something wrong or your counterpart was not being forthright with you.In all likelihood, both of you were not on the same frame of reference.
If we think about the act of communicating with someone, it may be helpful to consider the etymology or origin of the word. Communication actually stems from the Latin verb communicare, “to share or to make common to many.” We all know from experience that communicating effectively can be difficult, even with people we know and with whom we share things in common. Add the extra dimension of the cultural norms, which tacitly guide us in the accepted and expected ways of being and doing, and suddenly the process becomes even more complicated. The acts that we associate with communication do not equate to understanding. Two people chatting away, sending and receiving messages in a language they share, aren’t necessarily communicating. Thus, communication—truly effective communication between two or more people—is the transfer of meaning.
When I understand a subject the way you understand it—with all of the intricacies, complexities, context, and detail—then we have communicated. If I am not only aware of what you know about a subject, but how you feel about it, then we have communicated. When I comprehend just how important a subject is to you and why you think it’s important to take (or avoid) action, then we have communicated.Genuine understanding occurs only when both of us agree not only on the meaning of the verbal symbols (words), but on the nonverbal elements of the transaction (body movement, touch, silence, use of time, and much more) as well. As you will see, language is an important part of this, but there is much more for us to consider.
It’s helpful if we view communication as both a process and a product with the main goal of sharing common ideas. The process of communication involves simultaneously sending and receiving messages through language and nonverbal messages, which is a form of symbolic cues. The product of effective communication is shared meaning among communicators. This shared meaning is the product of a process in which all participants determine the meaning of both verbal and nonverbal messages. Thus, it’s fair to say that we do not communicate to others, but with them. Since language is largely symbolic, we arbitrarily assign symbols to words and expect that everyone involved will share the same interpretation of those words. It is important to observe at this point that communication is a behavior, and behavior communicates. Such behavior frequently produces results—often favorable, but sometimes not.
The product of effective communication is what is actually communicated, whether it’s the content of a telephone conversation, an e-mail message, or a formal presentation. When we fail to communicate with one another, it’s usually because one of us thinks we’ve been clear when, in fact, we have not. A frequent source of miscommunication is misreading or missing the frame of reference. There is a helpful way to get us to “see” what might be impeding effective communication. It’s called the “Triangle of Meaning,” which demonstrates how people share meaning through language. In this model, a communicator (both the person sending the message and the person receiving it) is referred to as an interpreter. A symbol is anything to which people assign meaning, such as words, diagrams, colors, and so on. Then, there is something called the referent, which is the object or idea that a symbol will evoke in the mind of an ‘interpreter’.
So, when we act as interpreters, we hope to select symbols that others will understand in precisely (or approximately) the same way we do. In other words, we’re hoping our receivers will assign the same meaning to a word that we have. If we use a symbol that means something different to the person we’re addressing than it does to us, then we create faulty “referents” in our minds. In essence, we’re not on the same wavelength. Communication, then, occurs only when meaning is agreed upon. We can certainly create meaning through nonverbal signals and signs, through graphic images, and other means. But, like it or not, language remains the most powerful tool for humans to share meaning.
For example, if your supervisor were to walk by your desk, hand you a folder and say, “I’m going to need this soon,” what would your reaction be? If you work in any number of industries, you might think, “by the close of business today,” or “within a couple of days.” If you’re a commodities trader, you would drop what you’re doing and attend to the folder immediately. It all depends on the frame of reference for your organization and the industry in which you work. If you and your boss are both the ‘interpreters’, then the ‘symbol’ would be his or her actual words, “soon”. Depending on how you interpret the meaning of ‘soon’, you will either be on the same frame of reference or not. If not, then both of you are not making the meaning common or sharing it in a way that others can understand.
In our next post, we’ll give a specific example of a multinational company that struggled to be on the same frame of reference regarding how to market its product in different cultural contexts.
Reference: Tuleja, Intercultural Communication for Business, Chapter 2.