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Muddled Messages In America's Past

Telegraph operator, 1908.
Library of Congress
Telegraph operator, 1908.

Do you ever feel like communication — in this Age of Communication — is more confused and confusing than ever? Does anybody even read whole messages anymore — beyond the subject line or the first screen? Do you get tangled up in threads and bewildered by attachments? Do txt msgs n-furi-8 u?

Here's the real question: Are all these communication devices truly improving interaction between humans or just providing more opportunities for miscommunication?

"Technology can strengthen interpersonal communication or weaken it," says Anita Vangelisti, who teaches interpersonal communication at the University of Texas at Austin. "Technology is a channel for communication. It creates opportunities and means for communication that wouldn't exist otherwise."

In some cases, those opportunities "make for clearer, more efficient communication," she says. "In other cases, they can create misunderstanding."

A Failure To Communicate

Even though it seems like we invented miscommunication in recent years, American history is full of examples of misread missives and mangled telephonics — sometimes with tragic results, oftentimes not. Here are three examples from everyday life:

  • Crossed Wires. In February 1912, Mrs. Joseph C. Yeager misinterpreted a wire from her husband and took drastic — and, as it turns out, unnecessary — measures as a result. The Indianapolis News in Indiana, described Mr. Yeager as a "horseman, gambler and all around plunger." He was an inveterate gambler and big-time loser. So when Mrs. Yeager "hastily scanned" a telegram from her husband — who was at a horse track — saying "Broke. Even lost on Dollie," she panicked. Believing her husband was penniless, she immediately pawned her $35,000-worth of jewels for $6,000. What the telegram actually said, however, was "Broke even. Lost on Dollie." So Mr. Yeager came home with money in his pocket, but not enough to get his wife's jewels out of hock. The couple eventually divorced.
  • The Misread Recipe. From the March 19, 1909, Brown County World in Hiawatha, Kan.: In the thick of the anti-alcohol, pro-prohibition movement, the prim and proper Northwestern Christian Advocate — based in Chicago — published a recipe for pound cake that called for "a wineglass of whisky." Readers went ballistic. The editor issued an apology and pinned the blame on the woman who edited the Housekeepers' section of the paper. Her explanation: She had taken the recipe straight from a reliable, temperance newspaper and "she didn't read it closely."
  • Cow Catcher. And this from the Lincoln Evening Journal of Nov. 7, 1929. Bess Miller, who owned a confectionery in Omaha, discovered a pair of cows "stuck between ties on a railroad trestle on the outskirts of Omaha" and telephoned the railroad agent in Ralston to stop the eastbound train that she knew would be passing through momentarily. The agent misunderstood Miller's warning and did not stop the train. Miller prevented a disaster, however, by waving down a passing motorist and giving him a lantern to signal the train to stop.
  • One Potential Upside

    Each new communication device that comes down the pike "has different characteristics that affect interpersonal communication in different ways," Vangelisti says. "Smart communicators figure out that some technologies are better channels for certain types of interpersonal communication and others are more appropriate for other types of interpersonal communication."

    But ultimately, miscommunication among humans is inevitable. "People bring their wants, experiences, likes, and dislikes to any communication interaction they engage in," she says. "The things they bring to any interaction affect how they interpret others' communication and how they respond."

    She points out, however, "that miscommunication isn't always a bad thing." She cites research showing that, in some situations, miscommunication can even be beneficial to certain interpersonal relationships.

    For example: "Romantic partners who are satisfied with their relationships engage in a form of miscommunication," Vangelisti says. "They often interpret each other's communication more positively than it was intended. In this way, miscommunication can help us keep our relationships happy."

    Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.