Communication vs. Understanding

Communication is something that each of us does every day, but just because we are communicating does not mean that the people we are trying to reach are understanding. This was brought home to me very clearly one Summer day on a beach in Florida.

The Hand Jive

I was traveling with a group on a cross country trip and we spent the day at Pensacola Beach. Before we let them off the bus to hit the sand my co-driver stopped the group to give them a short speech.

"This is a public beach in America, so that means everyone must wear bathing suits", he began. "For women you must wear the whole suit, the bottom..." (at which point he motioned to where the bottom of a bikini would be worn) "...and the top" (and he motioned to where the top of a bikini was worn). "You must wear them the whole time you are on the beach."

He then positioned himself at the door of the bus and as each passenger got off he asked whether they had their bathing suit. I noticed that many of the passengers seemed a little annoyed by his persistence.

I didn't think his speech was offensive so much as overkill. We had been traveling with this group for over a week now, so why was he treating them like little children? And why did he have to get so specific with the hand motions? It just seemed like too much to me, so I asked him about it after the group had left.

He just laughed and said, "I forget that you're still pretty new at this".

I locked up the bus and headed down to the beach to take a swim. Walking onto the sand I spotted three Scandinavian girls from the bus directly in front of me; two of them were lying on towels in the sun, wearing their full bathing suits. The third was standing on her towel, facing away from me, bent fully over and digging through her bag. She wasn't wearing a thing.

"Marika, hef you seen my suit?" she asked one friend "Is it in your bag?".

She hopped over her friend to dig through her bag, but didn't find anything. She then hopped back again and dug through her own bag one more time.

The beach was packed that day, and everyone for about 20 yards in any direction had noticed that there was a girl on the beach wearing nothing at all. Had she been showing off or looking for attention I'm sure there would have been a chorus of hooting and hollering, but the rest of the beach-goers were just looking on in stunned silence, uncertain if they were actually seeing what they were seeing and unsure of what they should do.

After another moment she finally found the suit in her bag and she proceeded to put it on right there on the beach. She then laid down with her friends in the sun while the locals slowly went back to what they were doing.

The next time I sent a group of passengers off to swim on a public beach I was very specific about what needed to be worn and where it needed to be put on, and it was obvious from the reaction that I surprised a few people with how specific I was. I did the hand motions as well, just to be sure.

Remembering Who You're Talking To

We tend to assume that everyone thinks like we do. Someone who grew up in America with our rules and our culture would instantly understand that the phrase "wear your bathing suit" meant "all covered, all the time", but someone who had just arrived from Scandinavia (where bathing suits are optional) would not. What I learned to say is that "You need to put on your bathing suit on the bus — all of it — and you need to wear all of it the whole time you are off the bus".

This experience led me to a very simple understanding about communication:

"If you need your message to be understood,
then it's up to you to make sure the person
hearing your message actually understands it"

We talk about communication all the time in organizational settings, and we do a lot of it; emails, phone calls, meetings, memos, announcements, etc. How much of that is really understood? How completely is it understood? Communication implies reception as well as broadcast. If what you're broadcasting is really that important to you, then it will be up to you to ensure that it is received and understood correctly.