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Ten tips for effective communication: From Freudian slips to body language

Don't let your Freudian slip show: Ten tips for effective communication

Of Freud's many contributions to psychology, perhaps the most well-known is the "Freudian slip"- the idea that forbidden unconscious wishes insert themselves unwillingly into our speech. Jokes about the Freudian slip are common such as its definition "when you say one thing but mean your mother." Then there's the oft-cited joke -- a married couple is having breakfast, and instead of asking for the orange juice, the husband says "I hate you, you (w)itch" (depending on your audience substitute "b" for "w"). 

So we all know about the Freudian slip, but is it really true that every verbal mistake you make is a peek into your hidden, ugly, desires? Psycholinguists have studied this problem and conclude that it's more likely that a Freudian slip is really a phonetic slip. A phoneme, the smallest unit of speech, gets put in the wrong place and -voila- you have an unintentional utterance. 

As you'll learn here, unintentional errors and other communication problems can cause problems that will make it harder for you to get the most out of your life. Whether it's by blowing a job interview or annoying your best friend, your sense of fulfillment will suffer unless you can use communication to your advantage.

Consider the following example. A leader of a women's political organization, who she is trying to unite, exhorts her audience with the rallying cry: "We must work together in CONDOM!" Of course, she meant to say "tandem." So why did she say condom? If Freud was asked to comment, he would say that clearly, the speaker had something on her mind other than her political cause. A psycholinguist would argue, instead, that she had made a phonemic error by switching "CO" for "TA" (ignoring the spelling difference between the ends of the words). Freud might win out in this debate because the error clearly had a sexual meaning. The speaker's slip showed that her mind wasn't on politics at all.

FreudSimilarly, let's say you decide to support a friend of yours in a local election and send an email to this effect. You get an email acknowledgement in return: "Thanks so much for your kind words and for your toe." Freud would probably be stumped by this one. He wouldn't be able to argue that your friend was grateful for your promise to ship your little pinky. The psycholinguist prevails-- "t" got swapped for "v" in the first phoneme and the "t" simply got left out at the end of the word. No hidden meanings there, just careless thinking and sloppy typing. Freud was incorrectly credited with having said "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." In this case, he might have said "sometimes a cigar is just a tiger."

Psycholinguists actually talk about three types of phonemic errors. In anticipation, a later phoneme is swapped for an earlier one such as "The book was a meal mystery." In perseveration, an earlier phoneme reappears in a later word -- "He pulled a pantrum." Reversal is the third type of error. Two initial phonemes are mistakenly substituted for each other in a two word phrase, as in "She made a po(p)py of her caper." This last phonemic error is also called a "Spoonerism" after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner's "tips of the slongue." Attributed to Spooner are such gems as "Queer old Dean." The Washington-based comedy troupe, Capital Steps, writes an entire skit called "Lirty Dies" full of intentional Spoonerisms poking fun at our nation's leaders. Here's one example, in their routine on the 2008 U.S. Presidential election: "Then there was Ritt Momney. A former movernor of Gas-achusetts. He was a stashing dud. And he loved to show his tiny sheeth."

signIn your own life, phonemic errors, a.k.a. Freudian slips, can potentially get you in trouble. Errors in speech can make you look sloppy and unprofessional, and if you pull a gaffe when you are trying to make a point, your point will be lost. Bad luck for you if you're a celebrity making a verbal gaffe. You might qualify for the "Foot in Mouth Award" given by the British Plain English campaign.

Let's turn not, I mean now, to the second set of linguistic traps- the ambiguity. Shakespeare was the master of intentional ambiguity as in the opening line to Richard III: "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York." To understand this, you have to realize that Richard isn't exactly happy about the "son of York," so it is meant to be sarcastic, not complimentary. The ambiguity is in the word "son" which could also mean "sun." Parenthetical note- this is the line that Freud borrowed from in his book, "The Winter of our Discontent."

Puns are based on ambiguity. Everyone is familiar with the double entendre, the staple of many punsters such as Jay Leno's "Headlines." A set of ambiguous headlines occasionally make their way through email chain letters-- "Prostitutes Appeal to Pope," "Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over, " etc. etc. Puns are great for humorists but they're not so fantastic if you're trying to be taken seriously.

Ambiguity also causes frustration in the people you are addressing. It's annoying to have to read a sentence over and over to figure out what a writer is trying to say. One of the worst forms of ambiguity is the "garden path sentence." This form of ambiguity gets its name from the fact that when you begin the sentence you are led "down the garden path" (a figure of speech itself). You think the sentence means one thing when you start to read it but by the time you get to the end of the sentence you realize it means something completely different. In some cases, the sentence seems ungrammatical but it really isn't- it's just confusing. 

Here's one that is pretty easy to get: "The horse raced past the barn fell." This garden path sentence looks ungrammatical sentence at first read but then you get the "aha" moment when you realize the horse THAT WAS raced past the garden FELL DOWN. Researchers observing the eye movements of people reading garden path sentences find that when subjects get to the word "fell" they have to go back to the beginning of the sentence and read it all over again, this time forming new conclusions about whether the sentence is grammatical and if so, what it means. 

People don't like to read garden path sentences because they take longer to process. We'd much prefer to move along jauntily as we read, not having to go back and rethink something we had already formed a conclusion about (a principal called "minimal parsing"). Researchers use garden path sentences because they provide a perfect opportunity to learn about how people process language. When they add eye movement tracking methods and even brain scans to the mix, they have a pretty powerful way to analyze what goes on in the language processing areas of the brain.

But returning to rules of effective communication, ambiguity is something you definitely want to avoid. You will be misunderstood, an unwitting butt of someone's joke, or criticized for being a poor writer or thinker.

Good speaking requires another element, though, and that is careful discourse planning. When you speak, you don't have a chance to go backwards and edit what you've said.  Spoken words are understood in linear order. Discourse planning means that you have to prepare your sentences "in your head" before you utter them. The classic example of great discourse planning is the statement by Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (the movie) to a distressed Scarlett O'Hara: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." The sentence just wouldn't have packed that punch if he'd said "I don't give a hoot what happens to you, Scarlett, and oh, by the way, I'm leaving your now, forever, really." 

accentSo far we've looked at the linguistic elements of language. But just as important are the so-called "para-linguistic" elements of speech. These are the aspects of communication that aren't in language itself but affect the way language is understood. Dialect, or pronunciation, is one of these. People in Boston say "bah" when they mean "bar." In New Jersey, it's "bawr." Dialects in the Midwest reflect the "Northern Cities Vowel Shift" affecting mainly the short "a" sound. People from Wisconsin don't say "cat" with a short "a," they say it with a long "a." Dialects vary even more in the United Kingdom. As you go from the western shores of Ireland to the northern shores of Scotland, you might encounter as many as 40 versions of Brit-speak. Take this test to figure out your American dialect.

Intonation is the second paralinguistic element of speech. Do you end your sentences with a question mark? For many people the answer is yes (or "yes?"). I ask one of my students where he comes from and he says "Woostah"? (for Worcester, Mass.). It sounds like he doesn't really know where he lives. I can ask another student (say, one wearing a Yankees hat), where he comes from and I'll get a definitive "THE BRONX." Some dialects seem to be paired with the question-mark intonation. California residents can be notorious for the question mark-period swap (Valley Girls, for instance?).

Research comparing men and women in their use of intonation observe that in general, women are more likely than men to end their sentences with a question mark. Women's use of intonation in general speech seems related to a greater sense of insecurity related to gender role stereotypes (more about this in a later blog).

The third paralinguistic element is style. You talk to a higher-up with a style of respect (one hopes) but to a peer with a more familiar style. It's hard to put the style element into words, because it reflects a combination of word choice and manner. One of the communication problems people have in work situations is to use the wrong style when talking to a boss, a customer, or an employee. People working with older adults often use a style that is infantilizing in which they treat them like children. In other cases, someone calls a stranger by first name when that stranger would rather be addressed as "Mr." or "Ms." These are examples of a style mismatch- the recipient of the communication expects one style but the speaker communicates with another. 

Politeness extends to your interactions with others when they are speaking. There is nothing worse than a butter-inner, someone who finds it impossible to let someone else get to the end of a sentence before interjecting a comment or question. An even worse variant of the butter-inner is the smart alec butter-inner. This is a person who makes a joke about something said by a person who meant to be taken seriously. The chair of a committee says, brightly: "I hope you're all doing well this morning." The smart alec quips- "I'd be doing better if I wasn't here right now." Oops.

Moving away entirely from speech, let's look next at body language. Is your body behaving in a way that's consistent with your words? Say you're at a job interview. The interviewer asks you why you feel you are right for the job. Your arms are crossed, your leg is shaking, your brow is furrowed, and you don't look the questioner in the eye yet you declare that you are a perfect fit. The interviewer concludes that you don't seem very sure of yourself, and unsure isn't what most employers hire. On the other hand, you don't want your arms and legs flopping around all over the chair and your head thrown back as if you're relaxing in front of the TV. Now you look like a person who doesn't really care about the job or who is about to enter a coma. Somewhere in between heightened arousal and total relaxation is the look you want your body to have.

There are many nuances to body language, most of them having to do with your level of honesty, comfort, respect toward your audience, and self-confidence. Your face signifies your emotions, and so your expression becomes part of the total picture. Body language can also be used as a power play measure as when two world leaders vie for the top position in the handshake. In your daily life, in situations ranging from conversations with a loved one to high-stress job placement interviews, body language is an aspect of your communication you want to use to your advantage. Be aware of what your body is doing so that its movement matches your thoughts and feelings, and just as importantly, see what effect you're having on people by reading their body language.

To sum up, here are the 10 tips for effective communication:

Megaphone1. Edit yourself. It's invariable that you'll make phonemic errors, especially when you speak, but you'll be less likely to do so if you pause a moment you let out the F-bomb (Freudian-slip bomb, of course). In your written communication, especially emails (which we tend to dash off quickly), read everything over before you push that "send" key. If it's an important email, give it a 2nd or 3rd reading.

2. Avoid ambiguities. Try to be as precise as possible in your language and don't leave too much room for interpretation. Speaking and writing with clarity will mean that your words will have a much stronger impact.

3. Work on your dialect. If you are strongly identifiable as coming from a certain region, city, or even neighborhood, and you have dreams of succeeding in a larger arena, then consider taking steps to smooth out the rough edges of your native accent.

4. Plan your speech carefully. You know what you want to say, but your listener doesn't. Make sure that your prepare others for the line of words you will be uttering. If you blurt something out rashly, your listener may not even hear the clarification you make after your opening salvo.

5. Adjust your tone to your audience. Make sure that you don't overstep the bounds of familiarity with people you don't know very well. 

6. Look people in the eye when you talk. Rule #1 of Body Language Etiquette is that you make eye contact.

7. Control your bodily position. Try not to let nervousness show when you're in a new situation by looking appropriately relaxed. At the same time, don't look like you're so relaxed that you're disinterested.

8. Read other people's body language. You'll know the effect you're having on others if you examine their posture, fidgeting, or frowns.

9. Control your facial expressions. Some people are better poker faces than others (I have no poker face at all, so I know of what I speak). Try not to grimace, smile, roll your eyes upward, or in other ways show that you're bored, angry, amused (when you shouldn't be), or sad.

10. Turn down your Type A tendencies. If you tend to interrupt other people, you'll be perceived as rude and uninterested. Avoid undue sarcasm or hostility in the manner and words of your communication.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010

Patson, N. D., & Ferreira, F. (2009). Conceptual plural information is used to guide early parsing decisions: Evidence from garden-path sentences with reciprocal verbs. Journal of Memory and Language, 60, 464-486.

You can also read more about Freudian slips on Leon Seltzer's Psych Today blog.

How To Read People