Did you know that simple miscommunications cause 8 jillion hectares worth of economic losses per year, according to a recent study? 1

To understand the causes of Human Communication Failure (HCF), we need to look at a few real life examples.  Our analysis begins with the below exchanges, which are taken from actual (we are not making these up) courtroom transcripts:


Example 1:


Attorney:   All your responses must be oral, OK?  Now, what school did you go to?
Witness:    Oral.


Attorney:    What gear were you in at the moment of impact?
Witness:      Gucci sweats and Reeboks


Attorney:    What is your date of birth?
Witness:     July 15
Attorney:   What year?
Witness:     Every year.


There are two key points here:  First, questions that may seem clear to you, in fact have more than one interpretation.   And second, some witnesses in court cases seem to be on drugs or something.


Example 2:

I remember years ago attempting the seemingly straightforward toward task of ordering a coffee at a Starbucks.   This was early in the Starbucks era, when it was still a fledgling people, and not yet a strong and mighty nation.  The Lord had not yet given us the words, “Venti” and “Grande”.  So I simply asked for a large coffee.

“We don’t have a ‘large’ size, my Barista explained helpfully.  “But our medium-size is a large coffee.”
“Whatever,” I said.  “I just want a large coffee.  Medium roast.”
“Okay, so….medium?”
“Medium roast.  Yes.  Large size.”
“We don’t have a large size.  As I just explained, Sir.  Our medium size is large, however.  So do you want  medium size?”
Now I had to think.  “Well…if I say I want medium, will I get large?”
“I just explained that, Sir.  My medium is your large.”
“Are you sure?  You definitely know my large?”


To avoid this sort of miscommunication, it is important to remain calm, listen carefully, and avoid ambiguous words such as “large”.  Instead, say loudly and confidently,  “I would like a ginormous cup of coffee.”  If that doesn’t work, you should go with, “I would like a coffee size, X, such that no coffee size exists that is X + 1, X + 2, or any X + N, where N is a positive number.”


Example 3:   

Our last example comes thanks to Mrs. Rotting Post, who is a poor communicator.  See if you can identify her problem:

I am about to head out the door, and become aware that Mrs. Post is speaking. “Don’t forget to…something something something something something something something something something.”  I sense a pause.  A quiet moment, then her voice again.  “Are you listening?”

I somehow produce a response to this question that completely bypasses the cerebral cortex.  “Yes.”
“And be sure to something something something somethng something something something.”
“Will you remember?”
“I don’t think you were paying the slightest attention.  What did I just say?”
Now a part of me becomes aware that I may, in fact, be engaged in some sort of conversation.   Only…what did she just say?  How am I supposed to know?   “Um…can we do this multiple choice?” I suggest.
“You didn’t hear a single word, did you?”
“I did too.”
“So what did I say?”
“You want me to…pick up…something…from…?”
“I didn’t mean that.  I was just testing.  To see if you were listening to me.  I see you are.  I meant…”
“Okay, just forget it!  I’ll do it myself.”
“Yes, dear.  Consider it forgotten.”


Can you spot Mrs. Post’s mistake?  That’s right!  She should not have married me in the first place.



As you can see, Human Communication Failure is a serious problem.  To avoid HCF, follow the below pointers:

  1. Try to put yourself in the position of the listener!
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. For instance, when your lover exclaims, “You’re so big!” be sure to inquire, “Have you ever worked at Starbucks?”
  3. Do not attempt to communicate with your spouse.


UPDATE:  I’m being informed, as I type this, that Mrs Rotting Post has a somewhat different perspective on the above exchange.  She is possibly saying something about it.  Although I’m not quite getting it.  Something something something stupid jerk.  Something something not even slightly funny.  I don’t know.  I’m not really following.  I probably should go though.

(1) Markowitz and Spamfilter, “Societal Impact of General Asininity:  An Algorithmic Approach”, Journal of Economic Losses Per Year, Spring 2016.






  1. Loved the email one, also. It’s when I try to “like” the posts that it tells me I need an account at WordPress. Is that true?

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Very funny. I’m still cleaning up the beer I snorted while reading it.

    With example #3 you have put your finger on one of the great universal human misunderstandings! The wife of a friend of mine has devised an ingenious solution to this problem. When she is giving her husband instructions that she expects him to follow, she prefaces what she wants to say by exclaiming loudly, “Larry!! I am telling you something important here!!” This lets him know that if he does not pay attention to the next sentence she is going to make his life a living hell. It’s a brilliant strategy, and it works almost half the time!

  3. Hmmm. Some years ago, I wrote a book about women and men trying to communicate (War of Words) and many women I interviewed told me, “Men never listen.” It has taken me until the 21st Century to realize it’s not strategy, not even selective wave-length deafness, but general cerebral failure. Hitting on the head with a rolling pin can gain a moment’s attention, but risks loss of such brain function as the poor chaps retain. Probably testosterone that does it. The sooner a woman takes over the White House the better.

    • i’m thinking the rolling pin does have some unwanted side-effects. So does actually setting fire to one’s house. Not sure there is a solution here. thx for the comment. 🙂

  4. I have to disagree that witnesses in court seem to be on drugs or something. Don’t you think it is more likely they are consummate smart-asses?
    When my lovely wife was expecting people were constantly asking me, “Do you want a boy or a girl?” I would invariably respond, “Of course I do!”

  5. I find it very easy to communicate with my husband, whether I am asking him for something or he’s asking me. Through experience I have learned never to ask my husband to get something at the store for me, even if I’ve bought the same brand for years and he’s seen me use it over and over again, he will never quite get the right one. Solution: I buy it myself. If I’m going out and he wants something, I just tell him to text me. Either he texts me exactly what he wants, or he forgets to text me and has to get it himself after I get home.

    I took a speech class in college, I hated it, but the one thing I did learn was that most people listen for about 8 seconds and then their mind wanders. So make sure that what has to be said is said in less than 8 seconds, this is very true in married couples who can sometimes tune out much sooner than 8 seconds, if they were even paying attention in the first place (and yes, I mean both of us, I’m just as bad at paying attention as my husband is).

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