The Barrow Pit: A Case Of Communication Disparity

Different words can cause communication disparityA few days ago, I was talking with a friend about a recent automobile accident. I told her the driver veered off the road into a barrow pit. “A barrow pit?” she asked. After a chuckle, I explained that a barrow pit is a wide, deep gutter dug along the roadside by the transportation department for drainage purposes – it is usually dry. “Oh,” she replied, “we call those ditches.” “Ditches?” Well, okay, but when I hear the word, ditch, I think of a channel or canal used for the moving water primarily for irrigation. So, when I told my friend, “the driver ran into the barrow pit,” I meant it was a dry accident. If I had said ditch I would have meant the driver went into the water.

How often do we assume the instructions that we give others are perfectly clear when in reality they baffle our listeners or are misinterpreted? Then, when we criticize their performance they look at us with blank gazes or defensively reply, “You didn’t tell me that.”

Leaders and team members will often assume that the other person will always have the same definition or understanding of a word used, so we need to check for clarification. Several years ago, I was a manager of the pharmacy/cosmetics department in a department store. And as with all organizations, we had certain words that had specific meanings only our organization, or trade. One of our most used industry verb was “face”. While this very common word, people do not think of it in the terms we used it.

Annie was still in high school when she became one of my department clerks. She was fairly young, very enthusiastic, and somewhat naïve, but very sincere is doing a good job. Company procedure was two days in orientation and then some training on the floor with a more experienced clerk. On her third day on the job, I assigned Jeri to work with her. Jeri was one of my most experienced clerks. About an hour later, I went to see how she was doing and found her standing staring at the hair care section. I asked if she had a problem. “Oh no,” she said. “Jeri told me to face the shampoo section. I asked her why and she said that’s part of the job.” Jeri assumed that Annie had been instructed about “facing aisles” in the orientation class. Jeri also assumed Annie was being a bit cheeky like some teenagers were. While it seemed very strange to her, Annie did what she thought she was told to do. Of course, in retail, “facing” means pulling product from the back of a shelf and making certain the front of the package faces the customer. Luckily, Annie had a good sense of humor and was able to accept the teasing the other clerks gave her for the next few months for being so naive.

Think about your own industry. What phrases and buzz words do you or your organization use to convey job specific meaning? Do all your team members understand the context in which these words might be used? Do your employees mentally see ditches or barrow pits?

Try this at your next team or department meeting: Throughout the discussion, ask members of your team if they understand all the terminology being used to describe a process, project, or concept. You might be surprised at how many people don’t know the meaning or have a different personal perception of what is going on.

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About the Author

Martha Rice