Problem of communication today

Amal Chatterjee
10 min readJan 21, 2019

Source : Google photo

Synopsis : This blog highlights the problem of mis communication today that is exacerbated by the new technology of cell phones and the media. The need to communicate through abbreviation of words and a mixture of two or more languages has had significant influence on how people communicate or mis communicate.

Once in my class of communication in California our professor said that he wanted to have an experiment to prove the importance of communication in our daily life. So he asked one student to come forward and gave him a written page that had a short story he had written and told him to memorize it and tell the story to the next student who in his or her turn will say it to the next student. Many students were from other countries.

We all waited to hear the last student who had just heard the story so he was now asked to repeat the story in front of the class. It was hilarious because what he said was a far cry from the original so the whole class broke up in laughter.

The professor said that this is a great problem of communication because each time a story is retold, it changes a bit until almost nothing remains of the original in the end. Why and how much the story changes a bit every time depends upon the comprehension of the story teller. The point was well made because we face this situation in our daily life and were eager to learn the solution to the problem of miscommunication.

It happens very frequently between people ( but not limited to it ) whose mother tongue is not English so a great many factors come to play in deciphering what someone says in English or a language that is not their mother tongue. So the problem of miscommunication is a worldwide phenomenon that can create numerous problems between people.

I would like to explore various reasons why people mis communicate and suggest that it has something to do with the culture, the deficiency of the mother tongue that often does not have equivalent words of English, the rules of grammar, certain English alphabets that do not exist in other languages and a lack of comprehension of certain words in English.

In the movie King and I , the Thai queen addressed the female British teacher of her children as Sir because as she explained “ You are scientific”. In her culture the scientific people must be called Sir. Her son also had problem with the word snow and claimed that there is no such thing as snow because he had never seen it.

When the missionaries tried to explain to the natives in the Amazon forest how Jesus died, they had a terrible time describing to them what a cross was so they substituted it with a tree that the natives understood but laughed saying it is a terrible way to die in a tree and suggested other better places. In their primitive language there was no word for cross.

I came across such problems in Vietnam where they have no word for ice in their language so they say nuoc da meaning stone water or water that turns stone like that is a close approximation of the word ice. They also do not have a word for helicopter so they say a flying machine that goes up and down which is a literal description of a helicopter. Leave it to the ingenious Vietnamese to come up with words even if they have to invent it through approximation.

In some languages like Tagalog, there is no past tense so they have issues with past as well as future tense that may cause a lot of misunderstanding when they try to understand English. Their grammar, their composition of a sentence and their conjugation pronunciations all are very different from other languages that complicate the matter of understanding so they resort to assumptions when they fail to understand something. This can result in varying degree of miscommunication between an English speaker and themselves. They also have problems of comprehension when they speak in Tagalog or Tagalish to each other because they are quick to assume something.

Now let me write about the effect of culture that plays a very important role in the communication process as I will illustrate here.

A fellow was once invited for dinner by a Bolivian fellow with these words.” Sir, we will have dinner at your house tomorrow “ so the gentleman was a bit surprised but prepared dinner at his house and waited in vain. The Bolivian gentleman also prepared dinner at his house in vain creating great confusion.

The next day they met again and asked why there was this gaffe so the Bolivian gentleman explained that in their culture they say that my house is your house as a sign of welcome which was totally misunderstood by the European gentleman.

I have been subjected to such gaffe myself except that an American totally forgot that he had invited us for lunch that we had accepted so it was not funny and my sweet wife was very annoyed. So cultural insensitivity or a misunderstanding of a foreign culture can create great problems in communication even if both parties are fluent in English.

I am always amused at how two people communicate in their own language and end up mis communicating face to face or through text messaging that is now the vogue. There is now an epidemic of fake news that spreads like wildfire through the social media because of this problem of miscommunication. When a person repeats to someone something he got from a third hand source then you can imagine the problem it creates. My professor in California was right when he proved that people repeat something always after making some changes on their own that creates fake news.

I notice this problem here in the Philippines where almost all the maids have cell phones and buy a load worth 25 pesos that allows them to chat or text without limit the whole day so they are prime suspects in spreading fake news. Recently they spread the news that so and so had died because they had it from a third source who got her information all wrong. This causes a lot of consternation because spreading fake news can create problems for some. When someone speaks or sends text messages whole day to use up her 25 pesos worth of load, you can be sure that some mischief is made.

I blame the advent of cheap cellular phones that are changing the way most people now communicate and the phone companies that sell the 25 pesos load to let people chatter whole day without limit. The maids do not realize that they are spending a great deal of their money per month on useless chatter that spreads fake news.

The phone companies are smart and make a great deal of money from these poorly paid maids among others this way because they have figured out long ago that selling a costly monthly plan is an uphill struggle for them but 25 pesos sounds cheap. The simple arithmetic has never been the strong point of poor people.

It is the same way the soap companies make a great deal of money by selling 5 pesos sachet of soap or shampoo but have a hard time selling a shampoo bottle for 350 pesos although it is cheaper to buy a bottle that poor people do not understand. They are also strongly influenced by the barrio culture where everyone will borrow the big shampoo bottle if the words get around so they buy the sachet.

The communication is strongly influenced by the culture. In a culture where the nuances of a language like English are not understood, misunderstanding occurs. English is a very rich language because there are more than one way to say the same thing and has borrowed heavily from other languages to enrich itself. It also continuously invents new words, idioms and new ways to make the communication understood. The technology based words that have been invented have become main stream and more are being added each year.

I tried telling a joke to someone here once that totally fell flat on a local who did not get it and was confused. It went something like this: A fellow approached a girl for a dance who declined so he said : Oh! I am sorry I did not see your wooden leg.

This is pure English sarcasm that the local did not understand and asked me if really the girl had wooden leg. He failed to get the joke. So the effective communication between two people depends a great deal on the understanding of the nuances, the context, the cultural background and the spoken or written words. A rich vocabulary does not hurt either.

The cell phone more than anything else has made people lazy so they abbreviate practically any word that can be abbreviated so Please is pls, Oh my God is OMG, Holy cow is HC, See you later is c u lter, Thanks is tks, Thank you is TY , at the moment is ATM, laughing out loud is LOL etc. The spelling ability of people deteriorates rapidly and in proportion to the rise of cell phone usage.

If we go back to pre-cell phone days we find that people communicated better in spoken and written English because the emphasis was given on good grammar, good spelling ability, good writing skills and good oratory skills in schools. The penmanship is another matter that needs mention here. We were taught how to write legibly in high school using fountain pen but the advent of cheap ball point pens has wreaked havoc on penmanship of kids. I thought that only the medical doctors are born with ball point pens in their hand. In our school days we all used fountain pens although they leaked in our pockets making Ma very frustrated.

I was so surprised that the kids are not taught dictation and conjugation in their grade schools here that we had to learn as the building block to learn to speak English properly. So it is not the fault of the students but the teachers who just did not have the skills to teach English the way it should have been taught. You mix that with poor spelling ability and the need to abbreviate everything plus poor grammatical skills and you have a person who cannot make himself understood to anyone.

Once I was asked to attend a court hearing here although I was not a litigant myself and was surprised that the court clerk who was taking dictation kept on interrupting and asking for spellings. To make the matter worse, the witness was asked the questions in English to which he replied in Tagalog that had to be translated back making a mockery of the court. The idiot clerk did not help the matter either.

So I think that the good communication skill depends upon the mastery of a language that a child learns as his mother tongue and gradually builds up his vocabulary and ways of expression as he grows up but learning only from his mother or people around him how to speak is not enough.

He grows up speaking vulgar language if that is what he hears all the time so a school can help him learn to speak his mother tongue better and provide him with books to increase his vocabulary and literary skills. Some kids take English as a major in college who are interested in a career of journalism later. Good writers and orators are not born that way but are trained by professionals who insist on basic fluency to build on later.

People who can’t write a decent resume don’t get called for job interviews and people who can’t express themselves well during the interview don’t get hired so we can all understand how important it is to learn to communicate in our everyday life.

I found that one way to increase the vocabulary is to read the classics and develop the habit of reading. It is not a costly habit because there are many free libraries where you can borrow books from. If you want to imitate pure British accent and learn to speak like them, then watch the BBC news and their programs everyday. Read my blog Forming habits .

Now the trend worldwide is to speak in a mixture of two or more languages so we hear Tagalish, Hinglish, Chinglish etc. that sounds truly awful but expedient. But when such languages get into classroom then you get used to it and later speak only that way. I do not blame the kids but I do blame the environment in which he grows up that dictates his speaking, reading and writing skills.

How can a kid learn good English if his parents only speak Tagalish? How does he learn English if the media like TV and movies only use Tagalish? How does he learn good English if his college professors also speak Tagalish? When a mixed language becomes mainstream, it can only impede a person to learn a language well if it is not his mother tongue, especially if it is not his mother tongue.

I have always stressed the need for a fluent home language that both parents speak so a child learns from them. It is no secret that rural children grow up speaking fluent Tagalog because their parents do not speak anything else but the kids growing up in mixed language home end up like most kids today who can’t speak a straight language in English or Tagalog or any other language.

The world of employment is cruel and does not forgive those who do not develop their speaking, reading and writing skills in college but those who do have a clear advantage over them.

The secret to good communication is no secret at all because it all depends upon how well you speak any language and how well you understand it. If you can succeed in making anyone understand you 100%, you have done well. Take a hint from Adolf Hitler. He was a great orator and a communicator.

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