Lost in Translation… effective communication is more than mere words

posted by Brendan Hodgson

I was chatting with a cab driver in New York City yesterday on my way from the hotel (on 9th) to H&K’s offices (on 3rd), which, given the state of NYC traffic during morning rush hour, allowed for considerable debate on issues ranging from the most likely candidates for the US presidential race, the prospects for newly-annointed French President Nicolas Sarkozy to truly affect economic change, the perils of colonialism (the driver was an Algerian who grew up under French rule), Quebec separatism, and Jean Chretien.

The driver was animated, extremely intelligent, and put forth his opinions (and he had a lot of them) with a sense of humour and (dangerously) a desire to maintain constant eye contact.

Which left me questioning how the discussion might have unfolded had it taken place online or by email. In this case, the driver’s broken English required considerable effort on my part to translate the real intent of what he was communicating. I had to focus my attention not only on his words, but on his expressions and tone. Without those qualifiers, without his expressiveness and dynamism, I might not have truly understood the passion behind what he was seeking to impart and left the discussion with a completely different perspective.

Likewise, and as we become increasingly dependent upon purely text-based tools such as email, I’ve noticed, and been both catalyst and victim to, increasing levels of misinterpretation based on having only the words themselves to guide my understanding of what the person is “really” trying to communicate. Irony and sarcasm do not translate well on email (I should know… I’ve failed miserably in this regard). Lack of vocabulary can also hobble emphasis and clarity. Messages that could be communicated in 30 seconds over the phone or in person rarely get communicated effectively in our efforts to send written responses instead (recognizing that to write out a 30 second diatribe could take 5-10 minutes or more – and who has that kind of time).

In the proliferating world of web 2.0 and the resulting “conversation” that these tools enable, I find myself witness to increasing instances where “conversations” degenerate as a result of the same issues that hobble effective email communication. Poor use of vocabulary, lack of any additional contextualizers (for want of a better word – and beyond such trite efforts as emoticons and LOL-style acronyms), the desire for brevity at the expense of accuracy or clarity. Each of these elements – and others – are, I believe – creating a new challenge for communicators that won’t easily be overcome, and which will demand a greater level of effort to capture the real intent of those to whom we are communicating or who are communicating to us.

Conversation cannot just be about text. Too few people in the world have the combined time, conviction and vocabularly to effectively articulate the appropriate combination of information and emotive intent in a way that accurately captures their true character and motive. Communication must be viewed as a three dimensional exercise, and be approached as such, which means elevating the need for additional media – audio and video – and the need to continue to engage beyond digital and extend the conversation into the real world.

Clearly, there is value in each of the media we use to help our clients communicate. However, more so than ever, we must understand both the opportunities and the limitations each provide.




Brendan, Great post. Couldn’t agree more. I noticed recently that english comprehension scores among Irish students have gone from one of the EU’s best to worst in a couple of years. Text messaging is being blamed.

The key though still appears to be recognizing and correctly interpreting context and delivering content that is appropriate to the medium. Ie. ‘B there in 10 mins’ is a good text message, but dissertations on the whether Sarkozy can affect real change might be better over a glass of wine.



Brendan Hodgson

Thanks Jonathan,

Though I would ask whether there was really any situation where a glass of wine would not be suitable to establishing essential context?




I fear the excessive use of email in the work place is making us less productive.  Too much communication is happening in writing.  Try this thought experiement.  Image if all forms of communication amoungst your household was done via email.  That means all communication to your spouse and kids would be done by email.  Would this really be effective?  And wouldn’t it take so much time?  There is a place for email for certain types of communication that is more of a monolog, or a simple query, and can benifit from asyncronous nature of email.  What I see is email being used for forms of communication that is better done by a real time conversation, preferably in person.  In a real time conversation, there is quick back and forth questions that enable clarifiation.  Email conversations take far more time to accomplish the same thing and still are not as effective.  Why then do we use email for conversations, particularly at work where white collar people are get paid big bucks to type away?  I don’t understand it.  There needs to be some research on how email is productive and how it is not productive.

Another point about texting and email is that it is a "low-fi" life experience.  A communication experience is reducted to pixels verses the infinate dynamics of in person communication.  I work from home.  A lot of my communication through out the day is by email.  I sit in front of a computer in a small den by myself.  My true real experience is one of issolation.  When I look back at my months of work experience, I just get an impression of me sitting in my den.  Kind of depressing.  I have no real memories of life experiences work related.

We are biasing these "low-fi" communication experiences over the real thing.  I feel the richness of our lives ends up losing out big time.

Add a comment