The Messiness of Interpretation

One of the worst things you can do with respect to communication is to think about it as nice, neat, simple, straightforward. I know it’s tempting. I know it’s easy, But communication is simply not like this. That communication is linear, direct, and easily moves from A to B, let alone that it happens in facsimile duplication is delusional. Communicating is messy.

There’s a relatively famous/widespread quote attributed to Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw found on many an image macro stating “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place.” It’s actually quite the opposite.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has not taken place.

There’s actually doubt whether Shaw said this at all and due to some good internet sleuthing we actually know that it was William H. Whyte, an American writer and journalist, who actually said, “the greatest barrier to communication is the illusion of it in the mind of the sender.” I don’t much believe in “barriers” when it comes to communicating but I’m totally down with that thing about “the mind of the sender.” That actually is where the illusion of communication occurs.

We think we’ve communicated because we’ve stated our point, yet forgotten is the fact that the other person gets to interpret as part of communication as well. They get a say in how communicating goes. To fail to recognize the that others will interpret as part of communicating, is a failure of perspective.

Interpretation ⊆ Communication

At its most fundamental, interpreting is the attaching or attributing of meaning to information. We do this constantly while we are communicating.

When we speak, the other person interprets. When they speak, we interpret. The back and forth is so quick as to be instantly transactional — like it hums with a glow. Concerns such as “did my message get across” pale in importance to this reality.

All this interpreting, unpacking, and organizing of information involves a lot of brain power and much of time and efforts when communicating. Interpretation — and its messiness — is much of the reason why communication is, as it is. It’s in the interpretation parts of communication where what we think of as “miscommunication” happens. It’s only after something’s been said where an interpretation might be noticed as different than intended It’s only here that the “miscommunication alert buzzer” goes off in our heads. Except this isn’t miscommunication at all. It’s just communication. Misunderstanding, for sure. Miscommunication? Nope.

Senders like to think that when they say things, the interpretations are received as intended. This is surely a pursuable ideal, but rarely is this the reality of communicating. Again for those in the back: communication is not direct deposit.

A tricky aspect of interpretation is that it can feel almost random at times. (It often is!)

How many times have you ever said something and then, seeing or hearing their reaction, wondered to yourself “How are they getting that from what I said?” It happens all the time. People interpret in ways that make sense to them.

This is entirely the promise and problem of human behavior.

“One cannot not communicate.”

One cannot not interpret, as well.

I Love Your Brain

Interpretation happens in brains, but communication is bigger than psychology, or biology for that matter. What I mean is: communication is all the stuff that goes on when two brains are connecting through words and language and bodies. It isn’t just psychology. It’s way better.

Brains are important though.

Neurologically speaking, interpretation is fairly instantaneous though it can certainly happen after the fact as well. There’s a whole big field of neurolinguistics that deals with the brain mechanics of interpretation and comprehension. I’m not a neurologist. What I’d like to point out to any non-neurologists out there is that in some sense, chemistry and biology are unignorable because when it comes down to interpretation-in-brains, you can’t escape the chemistry of communication. A whole lot of human behavior comes down to dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin — the good stuff and monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A), an enzyme that breaks down key neurotransmitters which can result in depression and anxiety. Certainly there is far more brain chemistry to communicating than what I can put in 5 sentences.

As we communicate, our brains are always classifying and organizing information — that’s what interpretation is. We turn around and through what we say and do stimulate the interpretation process for others. And they interpret. Because they have brains too. It’s less back-and-forth and more ongoingly instantaneous than the stilted nature of human conversation or language makes it sound. A glowing hum.

Monsters Rear Their Heads Again

Getting into the nuts and bolts of communication machinery as complicated as interpretation means spectres like ambiguity, context, and intent come back into play. Are they nice? Angry? You have to play the game to find out.

The ambiguity of language and the possibility to interpret multiple meanings is entirely normal. People can act ambiguously and be unpredictable as well.

Context and history influence interpretation. No relationship comes from nowhere. Context constantly changes and shifts. And the whole game can pivot abruptly upon a single wild interpretation.

Intent and intention can be taken into account — or ignored entirely, either is fine. Interpreting what was intended may be a measure of good communication, but this also assumes good faith. And intent, as we all know is more complicated than good faith. And don’t forget that interpretation gets wild quickly. Even a simple response of “I’m fine.” to the question “How are you?” contains a lot of interpretation potential depending on context, how it was said, and knowledge about who is doing the saying (and asking).

There’s a lot that goes into interpreting even the simplest statements regardless of their intentionality.


Interpretation — one of communication’s giant, intractable, ongoing problems. Always changing. Always being negotiated. Always multifaceted. Never really done. Yet always part of the whole. Speaking, listening, interpreting. Comprehending and speaking back. More interpretation. And on and on it goes — very quickly. There’s that hum again…