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Language, Definitions, & Expectations

The Building Blocks of Stressful Situations & Communication Dysfunction

By Chuck Cusumano

It has been 41 years since I started my first real job.

In that time, I have worked with thousands of coworkers and managers—many of them excellent teammates with great intentions. I have coached, mentored, and led hundreds (and truly, I mean hundreds) of people throughout the span of my career. I have spent decades devoted to working side-by-side with others.

After years of this, I have concluded that most problems, stress, and workplace headaches that come hand-in-hand with working alongside other human beings can be placed into one, single category: we rarely know what the other person is really saying to us.

Sure, we all talk to each other. We all technically hear other people.

But rarely do we listen. Hardly ever do we truly communicate.

In all reality, we are all speaking thousands of different languages to each other and we believe that we are all, somehow, communicating the exact same thing in the exact same way to one another.

If you ask me, that is somewhat delusional.

Speaking Different Languages: How Poor Communication Can Cause Stressful Situations

Are you unsure if you can agree with what I have just said about communication being the key driver behind our stress? Are you not exactly on board with the concept of thousands of different ways to communicate?

Truthfully, I do not blame you—it is a hard reality to accept, especially because we all tend to think of ourselves as great communicators, especially when it comes to the business world.

Even though it’s tough, I challenge you to truly hear me out. Just for fun, think about this recent example and really try to analyze the situation from the new lens I have just talked about.

Earlier this year, I was working with an executive leadership team that was part of a medium-sized company. Together, we were tackling how to outline their business goals for the upcoming quarter.

The owner of the company suddenly spoke up. “We keep setting these goals, but I’m frustrated because we never seem to take them seriously,” he said. “There seems to be no consequences and no accountability for not achieving them.”

I surveyed the room, trying to identify how the other executives felt about the owner’s statement. Their body language and facial expressions told me a few different, pertinent things. First and foremost, they were uncomfortable. Secondly, they did not appear to agree with his bold statement.

I decided to chime in. “I would like for all of us to talk about and address exactly what the owner just shared, but can we all agree to take part in a small exercise before we dive into that?” I asked.

Everyone in the room obliged.

First, I told them to answer this question in writing: “What is your company’s policy on the response time to an email sent from an external customer? What about an internal coworker?”

They scribbled down their answers.

Nine executives participated in this exercise. They came back with nine different answers.

In a few instances, the answers were relatively similar. But in most, they were not even remotely close.

Each and every one of those executives was effectively speaking an entirely different language. This led to a few squabbles among the group—they could not even begin to agree on whether they have a policy or best practice for these procedures, or if it was just something that everyone in the company inherently knew.

Like so many other companies today, these executives did not have a policy in writing on what was acceptable when it came to responding to emails. More importantly, they never trained their new employees on their company culture. They did what so many other organizations do—they assumed.

They assumed that everyone knew the answer was “XYZ”—whatever they each wrote down on their slips of paper—leaving each and every employee to determine what they believed to be the acceptable time to respond to an email. The crazier part? Just a few minutes before this exercise, a few executives had mentioned that their #1 issue was spending too much time responding to and sending emails.

For reference, email was their primary communication tool—and they couldn’t agree on how to best use it.

So, what’s all of this got to do with not meeting goals, like the owner mentioned at the beginning of this example?

When the owner made the comment that the organization was not achieving their goals and people were not being held accountable, I figured that his definition of goals and accountability was most likely different from his leadership team’s definition of goals and accountability.

See how definitions and expectations can create a breeding ground for poor communication and dysfunction?

The Ever-Evolving Nature of the Languages We Learn

In my opinion, it is truly no wonder this happens and that we all end up speaking some version of our own language.

Given our ever-expanding growth of text, email, and digital communications—not to mention the growth and adaptations of our language—what else did we think would happen?

Still not entirely sure you can agree with my point of view? That’s fair—but before you give up on me, consider these simple facts first. just updated their online dictionary in July 2020, and according to their records, it was historic. Why? Because it was their biggest update ever.

They reported nearly 15,000 entry changes to the dictionary. In other words (no pun intended) this is how things shook out:

  • 2,100 words were given new definitions—the words simply mean something different now

  • 11,000 words were revised for clarification—they might still mean what they did before, but they also might not

  • 650 entirely new worlds were added—yes; entirely new words

When were we going to be told? When did someone plan on letting me know that there are nearly 700 new, totally acceptable words that we can add to our vernacular? Do other employees know about these new words?

For example, in 2019, the #1 trending word was woke.

That is great, but I genuinely believe that front-line employees would define woke much differently than a company’s executive.

Global Language Monitor—a site that tracks the use and size of the world’s languages—states that the English language (as of January 1, 2020) has a total of 1,057,379 words. However, several studies by linguistic researchers tell us that the average 20-year-old native English-speaking person only knows and uses about 40,000-42,000 of those (roughly) 1 million words.

Lexicographer Susan Dent said that the “average person who speaks English as their native language may have a total knowledge base of 40,000 words, but our research shows that in practice, they only really use a maximum of 20,000 words in their daily life.” On the surface, 20,000 words might seem like an expansive vocabulary—but in reality, it is less than 1% of the total word count of the English language. And that’s without even discussing the use and meaning of emojis.

In a now-famous study from the 1960s, Dr. Albert Mehrabian (a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles) found that most communication is actually non-verbal.

As a part of his study on how the human mind determines meaning, he found the following to be true: “The determination of a message is 7% verbal, 38% vocal, and 55% visual.” Or, as you might have famously heard, “93% of communication is non-verbal in nature.”

To this day, most experts agree that somewhere between 70%-93% of all communication is non-verbal.

Verbal communication (spoken word or written word) is classified as a single channel and is considered to be direct. Non-verbal communication is often considered indirect and can include factors like facial expression, eye movement, gaze, head movement, hand gestures, body posture, tone and pitch of voice, speaking speed, and pace of speaking.

To boil this down, we can say that, for most of our history, even if we were not well-versed in a language, we could effectively communicate. How? Because we had the opportunity to determine what was being communicated in relation to how it was being said.

We used—and still use—non-verbal cues as our main source of information to help identify what someone means instead of trying to identify precisely what someone said.

In the past, people did not migrate or move around the country as quickly as they do today. Our definitions of phrases and words mean the same thing to those around us.

For example, in the South, if you order a tea to drink, then it is quickly assumed you mean you would like a sweet tea. If you do not want a sweet tea, the onus is on you to identify that you are looking for an unsweet tea. If you travel anywhere else in the U.S., it is unlikely sweet tea is even available (unless, of course, you plan to dump a packet of sugar in your cold tea to sweeten it yourself—which might be your only option).

But in today’s world, we hop planes with ease (and often). We move from one end of the country to the other for a job without a second thought. Most of us have a 24/7 connection to the internet and cable TV.

Everything we knew about regional language blends together. Physically and virtually, we are bringing our local definitions of words and phrases to conversations, forgetting that we come from dynamic backgrounds, unique cultures, have distinct family traditions, and retain geographical accents.

Tack on the debilitating use of text, email, and electronic communication to that equation (which allows for almost no non-verbal communication cues) and it is no wonder we are always at odds with each other.

In a recent study that observed couples seeking marriage counseling, it was reported that 67% of them stated the reason they wanted counseling was because they “did not communicate with each other.” These married couples—who apparently love each other and took an oath to be with each other—are having trouble communicating with each other.

How, then, could it surprise us that the person we work next to, casually interact with, and barely know outside of our office does not really understand what we are trying to say—especially when we are trying to communicate primarily through electronic communication?

Of course, not—the math simply doesn’t add up.

Take the Stress Out Of Communication: Slow Down, Listen, & Pay Attention

There is huge influx of different words being used every single day. As this happens, we have less command of our own language (remember the 1% knowledge fact). Increasing use of non-face-to-face communication means that there is a 70-93% loss of information on the meaning of the message.

In other words, the increased use of non-voice communication directly equals a loss of non-verbal information. Which is where we get most of our information on the meaning of what is being communicated!

It makes sense, right?

It is the definition of the words and expectations we have that are the root of most of our communication issues.

Love, hard work, team player, I’ve got your back, friend, collaborate, early, late, expensive, lie, honesty—we all assign our own, personal definitions and expectations to these words. We do not get an agreement with those we communicate with on a shared definition.

When a soldier in a foxhole tells a fellow soldier standing next to him, “I have your back,” it has an entirely different meaning than when we say to a colleague at our office job, “I have your back.”

For some of us, late means “not 10 minutes early.” For others, late means more than 10 minutes past the time that was agreed upon. That’s a 20-minute difference in the definition.

There is a famous, very popular tool out there that can help you define how you express love and appreciation—it is called The 5 Love Languages. This tool is a test that can be taken for free—it helps you identify how you express love and appreciation and can help you better understand how those around you do, too.

Here’s my basic advice to combat the stress that definitions and expectations within our language can put on you.

  • Slow down.

  • Take the time to listen to what others are trying to convey to you in their own words and non-verbal cues.

  • Ask for clarification on important definitions and ensure you agree on what a realistic expectation is before moving on.

  • Finally, take the time to have face-to-face (or at least verbal conversations) when the topic is about wellbeing, performance, expectations, or emotions.

In short, do your best to connect with those around you.

Text, emails, and even this blog are fine to pass along data and non-crucial information, but even as I type out the letters of this blog, I am keenly aware that many of you might misunderstand what I am trying to communicate to you.

So, let us talk and figure it out. Send me an email so we can set up a time to talk, listen, communicate, and truly understand each other! Otherwise, we are destined to end up with different definitions and alternate expectations for the same encounter - and that serves no one!

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