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Why Are People Mean? Don't Take It Personally
Reason 2: Miscommunication/Misunderstanding
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist

Read the following to:
  • Understand how apparent meanness due to communication problems is usually unintentional.
  • Learn the difference between miscommunicating and misunderstanding.
  • Learn how communication problems can be due to negative assumptions or communication style.
Related articles by Dr. Frank:

Previous: Reason 1: Lack of Skills/Knowledge or Awareness

Next: Reason 3: Misdirected Intentions

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

To help you determine why a person might be mean:
Reasons for Meanness Inventory

REASON 2: Miscommunication/Misunderstanding

Communication involves at least two people. At any particular point, one person is conveying information and the other is receiving information. Problems can occur anywhere in the process.

Communication problems are usually not intentional. By resolving the inaccuracy in the communication, the problem can usually be resolved.

Miscommunication is when the individual conveying information makes errors in the process of communicating. Such errors can include inaccurate word choice, non-verbals that aren't in sync with the words used, not taking into consideration the audience and possible interpretations based on the characteristics of the listener.

Misunderstanding is when the receiver of the information misinterprets the communication. Often misunderstanding is due to assumptions the listener makes due to their own biases or way of defining the situation.

I worked with a husband and wife once who were aggressively arguing for a good part of the session. I noticed both of them kept using the same word in their argument and I asked them each to define it for me. What they discovered is they had totally different definitions of the word and by understanding the other's definition they were able to resolve the argument.

Negative Assumptions

A common reason for misinterpretation are assumptions made by the listener. Sometimes these assumptions are as simple as believing they know what is going to be said and respond without listening thoroughly. Other times they may negatively interpret based upon their own biases or fears.

For instance, someone with social anxiety may interpret “I'm busy tomorrow and can't have lunch with you” as meaning “I don't like you.”

When someone engages in this type of assumption making, often referred to as “mind-reading” because they think they know what the other person is really thinking, they may sometimes react accordingly.

For instance, the socially anxious person who believes that the other person doesn't like him/her may tend to withdraw. Reactions due to such assumptions may lead to more negative consequences such as the other person perceiving him or her as unfriendly.


1) Directness. Some people have a very direct approach in their communication because they recognize that hinting or indirect communication often leads to misunderstandings. However, this direct approach can be interpreted by the recipient as being mean.

For instance, directly stating “I'm not interested in dating you. Thank you anyway” can be viewed as mean when in reality it may be less hurtful than the indirect approach of not returning phone calls.

2) Indirectness. The indirect approach is often used because the communicator does not want to hurt the other person's feelings or wants to avoid conflict. However, this approach often leads to a great deal of miscommunication and often more hurt feelings in the long run.

3) Lack of Social Anxiety. Some people who lack social anxiety may be fairly blunt in their communications because such directness would not affect them negatively. Therefore, it doesn't occur to them that such communication may be offensive to some people.

In fact, most of us communicate with others in a way that would be okay with us and don't consider other people may respond better to a different approach. So, we treat others the way we would like to be treated rather than treating them the way they would like to be treated. And when we are really clueless we tell them the problem is they are “too sensitive.”

Next: Reason 3: Misdirected Intentions

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Dr. Monica Frank

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