If you’ve ever played the game Taboo, then you know just how important having a shared point of view can be with a partner while trying to communicate. The game requires one participant to get the rest of their team to say the word on the card without using that word, or one of five other “taboo” words printed on the card. In my experience, the best results come from friends with shared experiences.
For example, a couple might be able to get the word “fart” by one saying, “You blame this on the dog every damn night!” Chances are slim it that a complete stranger might get the hint. Though this closeness helps, sometimes it’s a hindrance. A friend might assume that the others remember a particular event or movie when they really don’t, and get hung up trying to use that presumed shared experience rather than moving to more obvious clues.
And besides games, this can happen all the time in a relationship. A wife says something about a party coming up in a few weeks and the husband doesn’t realize she means that he needs to get his suit cleaned. That type of crap.
Well, now scientists at the University of Chicago have proven that this is a real effect. In fact, the new study shows that in some cases, spouses communicate with each other no better than with strangers, but believe that their point is getting across.
In the study, Boaz Keysar brought two couples into a room and had them sit back-to-back around a circle, so that none could see each other. He then gave them each the same index card with an ambiguous phrase on the top and several possible meanings listed below. For example, one card read, “What have you been up to?” which could convey irritation at being late, interest in well-being, suspicion over infidelity or an playful conjecture about an imminent surprise party.
The “speaker’s” card had one of these meanings highlighted, which he or she tried to say in a way that would make his or her spouse pick out the correct meaning on their own card. They then repeated the exercise but switched partners so that strangers were working together.
The spousal units obvioulsy believed they had an advantage, estimating their level of success together much higher than with strangers.
But they were wrong.
In fact, the couples fared absolutely no better together than they did with strangers.
Keysar refers to this phenomenon as being egocentric. When working with a spouse, the speaker failed to take his or her partner’s frame of reference into account. They assumed the other would be familiar with the tone or inflection they were using, whereas with the complete stranger, they did their best to use cues that most anyone would pick up on.
So the next time you’re talking to a loved one, or even a close friend, don’t assume that they know what you’re talking about.
Use plain English, women!