When communication misses the mark

It was late Friday afternoon after a long week and I was operating on autopilot. Professionally, this was not an issue, as I happened to be in a supermarket at a self-service checkout. Functionally, it was an issue because I hadn’t noticed that my purchases were not being tallied up – the machine was out of order.

An assistant approached me and pointed to the machine with: “It’s not working.” “Oh, OK,” I said (reduced to a bare minimum of exchanges, having used up my week’s quota of words).

I moved to the next machine and began again. After a couple swipes, the lady returned to point out that this machine too, was out of order. I moved down one to be told again, this was out of order.

Late Friday afternoon, this isn’t very funny. I felt like asking if she had a pool going as to how long it takes customers to find a working machine. Was this a little game they played? Was there high entertainment value in watching tired shoppers like myself move around half-dead trying to get this one last chore done?

I asked (remarkably patiently) if she could show me to a machine that DID work. Which she did. Bingo!

Daniel Levitin talks about non-directive, non-confrontational communication and implicature; communication styles which require that the interlocutor infer what is actually being communicated. Thinking about these communication paths, it is possible that the supermarket assistant did in fact believe she was helping. She was providing a fact a) The machine is not working; and the unspoken implicature b) You need to move to a different machine. What she had not factored in was that adding c) “Here is one you could go to and successfully achieve your objective” would be the helpful thing to do.

The philosopher Paul Grice states that providing adequate information is part of cooperative communication. The supermarket assistant provided some information, but not enough.

To my mind it was a frustrating exercise and she was pointing out problems instead of finding solutions. To her mind, she was saving me time and frustration by not letting me waste time at a broken machine and that was adequate assistance. Perhaps she was also tired and had used up her weekly word quota.

Recently an administrative staff member (different organisation) told me she realised that her communication style was not always efficient. She gave an example of calling her boss with the information “John for you.” He came through to the foyer to look for John, only to be told “Oh, no – he’s on the phone.”

An easy mistake to make when we don’t think our communication through and process what essential points need to be added. Paul Grice talks about quantity, quality, manner and relevance as factors in cooperative communication.

A good rule of thumb in short communication exchanges is that keeping it short is good, but not good enough unless all the necessary information is there.

And it can't hurt to add a healthy dose of sympathy to the fact that everyone, even shop assistants, can get tired by Friday afternoon.

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