Current Issues in Communication

In this article, we are discussing four current issues related to communication in organizations: Why do men and women often have difficulty communicating with each other? What role silence plays in communication? What are the implications of the politically correct movement on communications in organizations? And how can individuals improve their cross cultural communications?

Men frequently complain that women talk on and on about their problems. Women criticize men for not listening. What’s happening is that when men hear a problem, they frequently assert their desire for independence and control by offering solutions. Many women, on the other hand, view telling a problem as means to promote closeness. The women present the problem to gain support and connection, not to get the man’s advice. Mutual understanding is symmetrical. But giving advice is asymmetrical – it sets up the advice giver as more knowledgeable, more reasonable, and more on control. This contributes to distancing men and women in their efforts to communicate.

Men are often more direct than women in conversation. A man might say ‘I think you’re wrong on that point. a woman might say, ‘have you looked at the marketing department’s research report on that point?’ (implication being that the report will show the error). Men frequently see female indirectness as covert or sneaky but women are not as concerned as men with the status and one-upmanship that directness often creates.

Women tend to be less boastful than men. They often downplay their authority or accomplishments to avoid appearing as braggarts and to take the other person’s feelings into account. However, men frequently misinterpret this and incorrectly conclude that a woman is less confident and competent than she really is.

Silence as Communication:

In terms of OB, we can see several links between silence and work related behavior. For instance, silence is a critical element of groupthink, in which it implies agreement with the majority. It can be a way for employees to express dissatisfaction, as when they suffer in silence. It can be a sign that someone is upset, as when a typically talkative person suddenly says nothing – What’s the matter with him? Is he all right? It’s a powerful tool used by managers to signal disfavor by shunning or ignoring employees with silent insults. And, of course, it’s a crucial element of group decision making, allowing individuals to think over and contemplate what others have said.

Failing to pay close attention to the silent portion of a conversation can result in missing a vital part o the message. Astute communicators watch or gaps, pauses, and hesitations. They hear and interpret silence. They treat pauses, for instance, as analogous to a flashing yellow light at an intersection – they pay attention to what comes next. Is the person thinking, deciding how to frame an answer? Is the person suffering from communication apprehension? Sometimes the real message in a communication is buried in the silence.

Politically Correct Communication:

What words do you use to describe a colleague who is wheel chair-bound? What terms do you use in addressing a female customer? How do you communicate with a brand new client who is not like you? Your answers can mean the difference between losing a client, an employee, a lawsuit, a harassment claim, or a job.

Most of us are acutely aware of how our vocabulary has been modified to reflect political correctness. For instance most of us have cleaned the words handicapped, blind and elderly from our vocabulary – and replaced them with terms like physically challenged, visually, impaired, and senior. The Los Angeles Times, for instance allows its journalists to use the term old age but cautions that the onset of old age varies from person to person so a group of 75 year olds aren’t necessarily all old.

Words are the primary means by which people communicate. When we eliminate words from use because they’re politically incorrect, we reduce our options for conveying messages in the clearest and most accurate form. For the most part, the larger the vocabulary used by a sender and a receiver, the greater the opportunity to accurately transmit messages. By removing certain words from our vocabulary, we make it harder to communicate accurately. When we further replace these words new terms whose meanings are less well understood, we have reduced the likelihood that our messages will be received as we had intended them.

We must be sensitive to how our choice of words might offend others. But we also have to be careful not to sanitize our language to the point at which it clearly restricts clarity of communication. There is no simple solution to this dilemma. However you should be aware of the trade-offs and the need to find a proper balance.