Surely they would

Something funny happened to me the other day. I had a meeting with someone who works in Sydney, in the lobby of a famous hotel. I arrived in the morning, had lunch with a friend, then strolled over to the harbour. The meeting was at 2:30. At 2:35, I receive a text from that person saying they were in the lobby. I couldn’t see them, so called. We quickly figured out the reason we couldn’t find each other. That person was in Melbourne – and I’d come to meet them in Sydney.

I then exchanged a couple of emails with their assistant to set up another meeting. In the end, I think it was much more funny than tragic. I did re-learn a rule of good communication though. Always clarify. Be redundant.

How did the mistake happen? In a simple manner. There was an address at the top of the calendar invite I received. But I only read the attached email, mentioning the name of the hotel. Rather than look for an address on the invite, I googled. I had explicitly indicated I would happily fly to Sydney for a meeting, so Sydney was my anchor. I thought, surely, they  would tell me if it was otherwise. They probably assumed that, surely, I would read the address on the calendar invite, and no confusion was possible.

This can happen to two people living within the same country and sharing the same language. It happens even more across languages and cultures. One party thinks: all information is there, how can they possibly go wrong. The other party thinks: surely, they would emphasise anything that might lead to confusion. Thus, mistakes occur.

It’s easy to fall into blame, or guilt. Their fault, my fault, who wasn’t good enough. But as a linguist, I always assume that communication problems are, intrinsically, a joint problem for both parties. Communication failures are collective mistakes, and have a simple prevention method. Clarify, clarify, clarify.

But we’re human, and weak, and often, we forget.

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