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Friday, April 17, 2009

Reading between the lines – a bad communication practice

I've often said that human communication is one of the most difficult subjects we have to deal with and this past week was no exception.

Last night my wife and I went to a restaurant for a meal with some friends. If you've read earlier posts in this blog you would know that I have tonsil cancer that has moved to my throat, so I can only eat pureed food. Trish had checked with the restaurant ahead of time that they would be able to puree the meal and they were only too happy to do so. The owner was delighted to be able to help.

Well, here is where the fun started.

First, the soup arrived, full of pieces of vegetable and chicken. They were only small but still caused me to choke on them, so we asked for the soup to be pureed. They were happy to oblige. About 15 minutes later the soup came back—a little colder and in another dish, but still the same soup and still with pieces of vegetable and chicken. So I put it aside and said nothing as I didn't want to create a scene in the restaurant. After all, someone else was paying.

Then came the main course—specially prepared for me. But this time it was pureed, only it turned out to be very thick. That wasn't their fault. I don't think we specified that it should be about the consistency of whipped cream. I just can't swallow thick food, so we asked for a cup of BOILING water (so that I could soften it). Again we waited over 15 minutes for the cup of BOILING water. By this time the dinner was cold and a cup arrived, with HOT DRINKABLE water, nowhere near BOILING. Since I didn't want to create any disturbance I mashed it with the food and got it soft enough to eat.

We discovered later that the owner "READ BETWEEN THE LINES" and assumed that when we said "pureed", we really meant "mixed" and when we said "boiling" we really meant "hot". She was very apologetic and admitted that she hadn't realised how bad my condition was, so made assumptions—a dangerous practice in communication that is all too common.

The point I'm making is that all the person had to do was provide EXACTLY what we asked for and all would have been well, but she chose to interpret what we said as if we weren't using the right words.

How often do we do this?

I was commenting to my brother today that this was a regular problem for our company when we were communicating with business people in the USA and Canada. (Now I should point out at this stage that Australians tend to say what they mean—they don't beat about the bush and try to be overly polite.) So I rarely got back answers to questions we asked in emails.

It seems that American and Canadian readers of the emails assumed that when we asked a question, we really meant something other than what we asked. My brother, who works regularly with American companies, said that his experience was the same. He has recently been working on a major project with a large American organisation and in almost every case he got back answers to questions that were not what he had asked for. I found that I had to spell out my question in detailed numbered points to make sure that the person at the other end actually gave me what I wanted to know. Of course, this becomes very frustrating and wastes a lot of time because the questions have to be asked again. When the wrong answers were pointed out, the person invariably said that they had misunderstood the question, when all they really had to do was read it and not "read between the lines", assuming that I had not meant what I said.

I've yet to find out why this is such a big problem for Americans and Canadians. It wasn't a rare occurrence, but happened almost daily when dealing with a range of different people on a regular basis. So it wasn't just a few isolated cases. It occasionally happens in Australia, but much less frequently.


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