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The Perils of Subtle Miscommunication

Subtle miscommunication is more dangerous than no communication at all.

If you Google the word "dumb," the most popular hit is a website called Dumb Laws. Alabamans beware: it's illegal to carry an ice cream cone in your back pocket; New Yorkers may not jump off a building, lest they incur the death penalty (again?); Texans may not sell their eyeballs; and Californians are permitted to shoot animals from a moving car, if and only if those animals are whales.

It's easy to make fun of the legal system for these isolated but obvious examples of legislative silliness, but the law is far more dangerous when its shortcomings are masked. One of these shortcomings was on display during a trial, Crawford v. Vernardos, in the Australian state of Queensland, in 1994. During the trial, three Aboriginal youths argued that six police officers deprived them of their liberty. The youths, aged 12, 13, and 14, alleged that the police officers took them from a shopping mall in three separate vehicles, "terrorized" them, and left them to find their way home from an isolated industrial estate at 4am. At first glance, this brief extract from the trial transcript suggests that the legal system is working fine. The attorney representing the police officers questioned one of the three youths, Mr. X, as follows:

Attorney: And you knew when you spoke to these six police that you didn't have to go anywhere with them if you didn't want to, didn't you?

Mr. X: No.

Attorney: You knew that, Mr. X, I'd suggest to you, please do not lie. You knew that you didn't have to go anywhere if you didn't want to, didn't you? Didn't you, Mr. X?

Mr. X: Yep.

Attorney: Why did you just lie to me? Why did you just say ‘no', Mr. X. The reason was this, that you wanted this court to believe that you thought that you had to go with the police isn't that so?

Mr. X: Yep.

The illusion of communication is compelling here, because Mr. X's responses make sense in isolation. He appeared to understand the questions, and responded briefly but appropriately. Indeed, the trial continued without objection from Mr. X's counsel, and academic experts were left to explain why the youths had discredited themselves with "lies." In truth, this brief exchange illustrates why miscommunication is more dangerous than no communication at all. The youths, raised to respect and fear authority, were surrounded by a series of authority figures who were dramatically more imposing than any authority figures they had encountered before. They dealt with the situation as they had been taught, using silence as a first resort, and blind affirmation as a last resort. It's impossible to tell whether they were lying, because the series of inconsistent yeses and nos doesn't constitute evidence either way.

Experts call this insidious phenomenon pseudo-communication, because it occurs when miscommunication masquerades as successful communication. Other examples of the phenomenon are just as concerning. In one tribunal hearing involving Australian Aboriginal land rights, the official trial transcript read as follows:

Examiner: Are you claiming Bagarrugu?

Aboriginal Witness: No, because I am branded with murder - with murdering Lakefield.

Mercifully, the trial had nothing to do with murder, so participants in the trial caught the error and the transcript was amended to reflect the witness's actual response:

Examiner: Are you claiming Bagarrmugu?

Aboriginal Witness: No, because I blanta - I'm belong to Rirmerr and Lakefield.

The witness was describing his origin, not discussing an alleged murder, and the illusion of communication was sufficiently transparent in this case to prevent a gross miscarriage of justice.

These examples are concerning, but at first they seem to apply to a narrow class of situations where the parties speak subtly different versions of the same basic language. But this description applies just as readily to dialogue between men and women, between liberals and conservatives, or between people from two culturally distinct countries that speak the same language. When faced with an authority figure, men tend to process information stoically, without moving their heads, whereas women tend to nod in affirmation. These divergent responses don't necessarily imply differences in friendliness and engagement, though a simple reading of the situation that ignores gender differences in communication might prompt that conclusion. Similarly, according to social psychologist Jon Haidt's research, conservatives believe that authority figures should be obeyed as a matter of morality, whereas liberals tend to eschew hierarchies. Consequently, the term "authority figure" has profoundly different meanings for conservatives and liberals. Australians and Canadians learn quickly that the word "thong" is not an acceptable alternative to the word "flip-flop" in the United States, though the terms hold the same meaning in Australia and Canada. In short, pseudo-communication leads to grave consequences sometimes and to trivially amusing consequences often, but it's ubiquitous in an increasingly diverse world. The trick is detecting it when it's less jarring than an Alaskan law that prohibits flamingoes from entering a barber shop.