The Miscommunication Effect of Bypassing

Bypassing is a semantic barrierOpens in new window which occurs when people think they understand each other but actually miss each other’s meaning because one or both are using equivocal language—words that can have more than one interpretation.

Instead of making contact with an agreed-upon meaning, their words simply pass by one another, leaving both parties confused.

Types of Bypassing

Bypassing consists in two types that affect us.

1.   Using Different Words to Mean Same Thing.

The first type bypassing happens when two people use different wordsOpens in new window or phrasesOpens in new window to represent the same thing.

Unknowingly to them they become unaware that they are actually talking about the same thing or fail to see that they agree with each other because they are using different words or phrasing.

Consider a scenario of bypassing below:

A couple argues vehemently over proposed changes in the health care system. One insists that the health care system needs to be “revamped,” while the other says that is foolish, since only “small changes” are needed. Neither realizes that what one means by “revamped” is what the other means by “small changes.”

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Too often, we argue because we are unaware that although we appear to disagree, in fact we basically agree. We are simply using different words.

2.   Using Same Word to Mean Different Things.

The second and more prevalent type of bypassing happens when people give different meanings to the same word or phrase.

This leads to semantic barrier Opens in new window and can cause miscommunication because the chosen word or phrase suggests that the communicators agree with one another when in fact they substantially disagree.

This type of bypassing is often harmless and may even provoke laughter. However, it can sometimes have more serious consequences.

Consider that in Britain “knock you up” means “come and see you.”

What would happen if a young man visiting the United States from England were to tell his American friend that he will “knock her up” before he returns home?

Some cases of bypassing are not funny at all. During World War IIOpens in new window, it was thought that the Japanese had decided to ignore the Potsdam DeclarationOpens in new window, which called on them to surrender, when the Japanese announced that they would be adhering to a policy of mokusatsu.

It was only after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima that interpreters realized that mokusatsu could also have been translated as “make no comment at the moment” rather than “reject” or “ignore,” as it had been translated initially. The damaging cost of this seeming interpretational error is chaotic.

Important Hint! 

For communication to be perfect, the receiver and sender must attach the same symbolic meanings to their words. Miscommunication is ensuing when people use common but vague words such as probably, always, never, usually, often, soon, and rightaway.