Shared meaning in communication

In one of the episodes of the TV series Friends (season 4, episode 5), Ross uses a fist-bump gesture at Rachel and she doesn’t understand what it is supposed to mean. Ross’s sister Monica explains that this was a gesture invented by Ross to ‘give the finger’ without giving the finger in front of their parents.

Only Ross and Monica knew what it meant, and it was an inside joke till Rachel (and the others) knew about it. The shared meaning of the gesture started with two people and then expanded to others (including the audience/fans of the show) who may now be using it on other unwitting people.

Such instances of shared meaning between a limited set of people confounding others happen a lot in communications.

For example, language causes this often. Take the Amul ad from last month. Amul usually has a single creative for all of India and releases it in all English newspapers as-is. When they try to create a pun in English, given that it is in an English language newspaper, they could be largely understood/comprehended. When they use a bilingual pun (English and Hindi), not only can they not be universally comprehended but they could end up meaning something else, unintentionally. Like this one where ‘kudi’ in Tamil means ‘drink’, most frequently associated with alcohol drinking. It then becomes an inside joke for Tamil-speaking people even though Amul did not intend it at all.

Or, consider this dangerous (in relative terms 🙂 ) trend of misunderstood meanings of emojis! It seems those harmless emojis you may be using have some other meaning depending on who receives them!

You could be thinking that those emojis mean the same thing to everyone in the world because you Googled the meaning, but when some groups of people make their meaning, your usage goes for a toss! It’s not your mistake, but your communication ends up wrong.

Many memes could end up like this too. For memes to work, the audience needs to understand them on two dimensions – one, the topical event/happening that is being referred to, and two, a prior connection as depicted in the meme. Without getting both, the meme’s purpose fails.

How does all this apply to communications in general? Consider simplifying the communication so that a large segment of your audience could easily understand it. The more complex you make it (for whatever reason), or the more jargon to include, the less it reaches people.

You may argue: can’t people ask/Google what the meaning is when they don’t understand something like Ross’s fist-bump, or a meme or a jargon? Of course, they can. But would they, is the larger question. Consider how social sharing happens with the least checks and research. A simple misinformation/disinformation is shared widely because someone (or many people) refused to use their rational sense to verify something before they share it. Now, apply the same logic to people’s interest in trying to understand something they do not – chances are, if they don’t get it at first, they will move on to something else because they can, and there is no dearth of shiny things to move on to.

I use the concept of ELI5 to simplify any client communication that I’m trying to address no matter what industry they belong to or how complicated the service or product is.

More on my ELI5 approach, from an earlier post.

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