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How Verbal & Nonverbal Communication Can Sometimes Be Misinterpreted

Updated April 17, 2017

The misinterpretation of communication can have dire consequences. People who misinterpret communication burn bridges, offend superiors and make enemies, all while having the most positive of intentions. Adding to this problem is the fact that communication is complex; people can often give seemingly contradictory verbal and nonverbal signals that obscure their intended meaning. There are many ways that verbal and nonverbal communication can be misinterpreted, most having to do with ambiguity, cultural differences and mixed messages.

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Ambiguous words are one of the main sources of misinterpretation in verbal communication. Words that have more than one meaning cause misinterpretations if used in the wrong context. For example, when said out loud, the phrase "he makes a lot" could mean that a person creates a lot of things and makes money from it, or creates things while earning no money, or earns a lot of money from passive investments. The three possible interpretations stem from the fact that "make" can mean to produce something (as in a product) or to obtain something (as in money or a goal). Verbal misinterpretations such as these can be compounded by vague and imprecise language.

Cultural Differences

Cultural differences can contribute to misinterpretation in verbal and nonverbal communication. In verbal communication, cultural differences can contribute to the misinterpretation of words. For example, the word "Jihad" is often translated into English as "holy war," but in Arabic it is more similar in meaning to "struggle," whether militarily or spiritually. In nonverbal communication, differences in the meaning of gestures can contribute to misinterpretation as well. For example, in Western cultures, putting your head down is a sign of low self-confidence, whereas in Japanese culture it is a sign of respect.

Mixed Messages

Sometimes, the meaning of a word appears clear but is belied by body language that sends another message. For example, when a person says "I'd like to meet you again" while crossing his arms and avoiding eye contact, it could be difficult for that person's interlocutor to determine whether he is being sincere. Other times, nonverbal signals appear to contradict each other; for example, crossed arms (suggesting defensiveness) and a warm smile (suggesting openness).

Social Awkwardness

Sometimes, people are simply awkward in getting their messages across. When people speak monotonously and without tone or body language, it can be difficult to ascertain any message from their communication at all. When people are experiencing severe social anxiety, they sometimes speak too quietly to be heard. People with Asperger's syndrome often have trouble sending their intended message with verbal and nonverbal communication and because of this are notoriously difficult to read.


When people are on guard in a social situation, they could be overly vigilant and on the lookout for insults and slights. For example, if a person has been told that another person does not think highly of him, that person might read too much in to neutral body language and come to conclusions about hidden meanings behind neutral communications. Two people on opposite sides of a conflict (for example, mutual friends of either party in a lawsuit) could interpret hostile signs from one another when none was intended, due to both being on guard and on the lookout for negative messages.

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About the Author

Andrew Button

Based in St. John's, Canada, Andrew Button has been writing since 2008, covering politics, business and finance. He has contributed to newspapers and online magazines, including "The Evening Telegram" and cbc.ca. Button is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Memorial University in St. John's.

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