Communication Currents

Language Convergence; Meaning Divergence

April 1, 2009
Interpersonal Communication, Organizational Communication

We've probably all begun a conversation with, “But I thought we said” or “I thought we agreed.” It usually occurs after people leave a conversation thinking that they have reached agreement. Later, they are surprised by the other person's interpretation of the interaction. This example illustrates a new theory of communication called language convergence/meaning divergence. The theory emerged during a study attempting to identify the difference between how people define flirting and sexual harassment.

We began our study hoping to discover how people differentiate flirting from sexual harassment in the workplace. We were not so much interested in the legal definitions, as we were interested in the practical definitions people use to distinguish between the two concepts. To accomplish this, we interviewed 14 men and 14 women in a variety of occupations. We asked them for their definitions of each term and for examples of each that they had either seen or experienced. We also specifically asked them what distinguishes flirting from sexual harassment. What we found surprised us.

To understand the findings of our study, it is first necessary to understand the difference between language and meaning. Language is quite simply the words that we use. People who speak a common language typically use the same words. Meaning, on the other hand, constitutes the underlying definition of a given word. Words are necessarily a shortcut for meanings. Conversations would be exhausting if we had to define each word. Unfortunately, language as a conversational shortcut can also create the illusion of a shared meaning—in other words, it makes people think they agree when they really don't.

We discovered that people use the same words but with different meanings. For example, the study participants all used the word flirting, but with different meanings. Sometimes meanings were radically different; sometimes the meanings were subtly different. To illustrate, we provide radically different examples of flirting from two women who participated in the study.

Susan: “You know, the men were always just making inappropriate comments to the girls. Um, we had one manager in particular who all this happened with. His sales name was Cloud. Huge um, I don't know maybe a 350 pound, you know, black guy. He was a very, he was an intimidating kind of guy and definitely used that to his power. Um, you know and there was an incident where we were all out at a, it wasn't at work but it was a work function, work sponsored it kind of thing. And he, um, you know came up and grabbed my butt and said, 'Have you ever had chocolate love?' I said, 'No.' He goes, 'Well do you want some?' kind of thing.”

The interviewer asked Susan three times if this was really an example of flirting. Didn't she mean it was sexual harassment? This woman momentarily contemplated this possibility, but then confirmed that she did not consider it to be sexual harassment because it was normal behavior in her work place. For this woman, normal behavior could not be sexual harassment.

Now contrast Susan's story with Elaine's story below. In this example, Elaine described a situation in which she felt that the main character on the television show, Blue's Clues, was flirting with the children in the audience when he said, “Oh, I'm going to play, that game with the ball and you know, uh, you shoot it through something, and there's a net on it. What do you call that? Oh, right, basketball. You are so smart.” For Elaine, flirting is nonsexual, playful banter.

Although both of these women use the word flirting, their examples make it clear that their meanings for this term are radically different. Examples like these seem to represent very different understandings of a common language. To describe this phenomenon, we propose a communication theory of language convergence/meaning divergence (LC/MD). Simply put, the theory suggests that people often reach agreement on language to describe or define a particular situation, concept, or plan of action, but the meanings they assign are different. These differences may be so great that it is difficult to imagine that the parties had participated in the same communication or used the same words.

So how do people respond when they use a shared language with different meanings? First, sharing a common language but with different meanings can create the illusion of shared meaning. People think they agree when they really don't. When this illusion of agreeing on meaning begins to fracture, people's natural tendency is to wonder what is wrong with the other person. They might categorize the other person as crazy, not very bright, or morally questionable. This tendency is called othering . Othering is problematic because instead of trying to understand the other person so we can solve a problem or resolve a conflict, we assume that the other person is the problem.

LC/MD emphasizes an important misconception that is common in our understanding of communication. Generally, explanations of communication suggest that if we improve the clarity or precision of our communication, we will better understand each other. This study suggests that not only do we need to provide clear language, but we also need to check underlying meanings in order to increase the odds that similar understanding will occur.

This theory helps explain why men and women often evaluate sexual behavior in the workplace in significantly different ways. LC/MD would also be useful for exploring intercultural communication in which reaching language convergence is often challenging enough, but reaching meaning convergence is particularly difficult. Finally, LC/MD might be useful in understanding those conflicts we have with others, such as a friend or a spouse. By asking questions more often like “what do you mean by that?” perhaps we can begin fewer conversations with “But I thought we said. . . .”

About the author (s)

Michael W. Kramer

University of Missouri


Debbie S. Dougherty

University of Missouri

Associate Professor