top of page
  • Writer's pictureJonathan E. Pearl

“What we've got here is....failure to communicate.”

There can be no negotiation or dispute resolution without communication. And wherever there is communication there is a risk of mis-communication. Sometimes this is because parties are talking to each other in a foreign language, or (worse) are talking through a third party who doesn’t have the same native tongue. Other problems with miscommunication arise where a party has to convey different messages to the other party and to its stakeholders, or where there is an element of “playing to the gallery”. Then there is just the plain misunderstanding of words, which is more easily done that one might imagine.


In 1877 the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli discovered ‘canali’, or canals on Mars’ surface. Of course canals are a manmade phenomenon, so this became proof that a civilisation once existed on Mars. ‘Canali’ doesn’t actually mean ‘canals’ at all, but ‘channels’ or ‘trenches’ – completely naturally occurring terrain. But this mistranslation has inspired countless works of fiction about “men from Mars” rather than “men from Venus”.

In the mid-50’s Soviet Russia and the USA were locked in a bitter and tense Cold War. Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier, was attending a reception at the Polish Embassy in Moscow in November 18, 1956, and told Western ambassadors “My vas pokhoronim”. News reporters in America immediately began to release the statement but unfortunately mistranslated what he said to mean “we will bury you”. In the circumstances, one can understand that Americans believed Khrushchev was threatening the United States with a nuclear conflagration. Panic ensued. It was only when linguists got involved that people got to understand that Khrushchev was actually using a common Russian idiom, the meaning of which is more: “I feel bad about your ignorance, but it’s your funeral not mine”. Once the mistranslation was clarified the bomber jets were stood down.

On a state trip to Poland in 1977, US President Jimmy Carter explained how he wanted to learn more about the Polish people’s desires for the future, both politically and economically. Unfortunately Carter’s Polish translator, a freelance linguist named Steven Seymour, translated it into words that suggested he wanted to understand their“...lusts for the future”. If that wasn’t enough, Seymour also translated Carter talking about returning back to America into him saying that he had “abandoned” America. Mr Seymour was replaced the next day.

In early 1980 U.N. Secretary General Waldheim flew to Iran to seek the release of American hostages. His efforts were seriously set back when Iranian national radio and television broadcast in Persian a remark he reportedly made on his arrival in Tehran: "I have come as a mediator to work out a compromise." In Persian, the word "compromise" apparently lacks the positive meaning it has in English of "a midway solution both sides can live with". It has only a negative meaning, as in "our integrity was compromised". Similarly, the word "mediator" in Persian suggests "meddler" - someone who is barging in uninvited. Within an hour of the broadcast Waldheim’s official car was being stoned by angry Iranians.

Even communications specialists get it wrong sometimes. When Toyota, launched their “MR2” sports car model in 1989 they failed to check out how the name would translate into French. The number 2 is “deux” in French. And so the sports car was known as the “MRDeux” or “merde”. Not the greatest brand name for a car.

In 2009 HSBC had to spend $10 million on a rebranding campaign after their slogan “Assume Nothing” was translated as “Do Nothing” in several countries.

Finally, for more than 50 years, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) used the slogan, "It's Finger-lickin' Good!" across the globe. To native-English speakers this suggested that KFC’s drumsticks tasted so good that customers would have to lick their fingers after eating. But in Mandarin Chinese the closest translation to “Finger-lickin'” was an invocation to: "Eat Your Fingers!". In 2011, KFC changed its worldwide slogan to "So Good" which was easier to translate into Mandarin.


A peculiar murder trial took place in 1953, when two British men, 19 year old Derek Bentley and 16 year old Christopher Craig, were charged with killing a policeman and wounding another, after they were caught attempting to rob a warehouse. At some point during the robbery, a policeman had cornered the two men and asked Christopher Craig to hand over his gun. Derek Bentley then said to Craig “Let him have it, Chris”. Apparently, Craig understood this as “shoot the guy, Chris” rather than “give him the gun, Chris”. Craig then fired at the police officers.

During the trial, the key issue for the jury was the exact meaning of the phrase “Let him have it, Chris”. The jury eventually concluded that it meant “shoot the guy, Chris”. As a result, Derek Bentley was convicted of murder by joint enterprise and was subsequently hanged.

In March 1977 two Boeing 747 planes crashed on the runway of the Los Rodeos Airport in Tenerife, all because of a simple miscommunication between the pilots. The fog was so thick that day that neither aircraft could see the other. A misunderstanding between the captain of the KLM plane and the air traffic control tower led the KLM captain to believe he had clearance to take off. Someone on the radio had said “It’s clear....” referring to the fog. The KLM plane crashed into the Pan Am flight that was still sitting on the runway killing 583 people.

Cultural Misinterpretations

Soon after his presidency ended, Jimmy Carter found himself in a Japanese college, giving a speech. To ease the tension and get everyone onboard, he decided to tell a joke. By his own admission, it wasn’t a funny one, but at least it was short. To Carter’s surprise, the Japanese interpreter translated the joke. But President Carter was curious how the Japanese interpreter translated his joke - because it was shorter than it should have been, and people laughed much harder than the joke really warranted. Finally, after much coaxing, the interpreter simply admitted his translation of the joke was the phrase: “President Carter told a funny story. Everyone must laugh”.


In late 1989, Germany was still split into two countries, the democratic West Germany and the communist German Democratic Republic. That year things were not going do well for the East German communist regime, which was rocked by major protests and civil disobedience. A constant fixture of the protesting East Germans was the inability to travel freely to West Germany. In response to the protests, the East German government decided to issue temporary permits through the Berlin Wall to appease any would-be defectors. These were intended to be temporary visas for a later, unspecified date—they were really only lip service to placate the masses. However, the regime forgot to tell the guy who was to deliver the news on live television.

Gunter Schabowski was a low-level member of the East German politburo, with a fondness for schnapps. He was chosen for the press conference because, as a relatively unknown figure, he carried no apparent authority. After announcing the new measures Schabowski was asked by an Italian journalist when the new visas would go into effect. Gunter stammered and sweated before blurting out, “immediately.” The room erupted into chaos, and Gunter only dug his grave deeper by saying that everyone who already had a passport qualified for the visa without needing to apply for a new one. Crowds of East Germans immediately flocked to the Berlin Wall border crossings. Border guards had no idea what to do because of conflicting orders, and were overwhelmed by the shear numbers. Order broke down and no form of regulation that restricted movement was capable of being enforced. Within the next few hours and days, ordinary East Germans took hammers and picks to the Wall. Soon mechanical diggers and bulldozers arrived. The process of destroying the Berlin Wall was in full swing.

In 2010 BP caused a legendary oil spill that stretched across the Gulf of Mexico. Their PR strategy included airing a number of expensive commercials and apologising at every chance they got--something the public found disingenuous. Ultimately, they received criticism from President Obama and others, who said the money they put into the ads should have been put into cleaning up the mess.

BP’s Swedish-born Chairman, the usually avuncular and sensitive, Carl Henric Svanberg was heavily criticised for referring to those living in the Gulf of Mexico as “the small people”. What he had meant to say was that this would not be a case of a big bad corporate walking all over local people. But the slight mis-translation from Swedish was very damaging to BP’s efforts to win over the local population or the hostile US Press.

Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO, also made matters worse by complaining about how much time he was spending on the clean-up - saying he “wanted his life back”. Many thought this showed a lack of empathy for those who had actually lost their lives, or their livelihoods, in the explosion.

What can be done to minimise miscommunication?

Listen actively and acknowledge what is being said. Pay attention to what the parties are saying. Listen to hear, not respond. Observe the speaker’s body language. Interrupt occasionally to say, "Did I understand correctly that you are saying that...?" The other side will appreciate that they are being heard and understood – it’s a very cheap concession. And if you have misunderstood the mistake can be easily corrected.

This not only clears away ambiguity, which might slow down a deal being reached. This type of acknowledgement means that the party being heard is less likely to come up with more and more reasons why their position is right. It also reassures the other side that they you have understood their position, even if you don’t agree.

If you can put the other side’s case better than they can, and then refute it, you maximize the chance of initiating a constructive dialogue on the true merits and minimize the chance of them believing you have misunderstood them.

Speak to be understood. Talk to the other side. Try putting yourself in their position. Don’t assume you know what their motivations are – unless they told you. Talk about your own motivations if you think it would be helpful. Talk about the impact that the issue is having on you/ your side. Your feelings are your feelings. A statement about how you feel is difficult to challenge. If, on the contrary you cast blame on the other side or impugn their motives that is less helpful, and unlikely to lead to constructive dialogue. Better to say: “I feel let down” than “You broke your word”.

Reduce the possibility of outside interference. In order to build trust with your counterparties, keep your discussions confidential. If you can – minimise the number of people in the negotiation room. The more people the greater the possibility for ‘grandstanding’. No matter how many people are involved in a negotiation, important decisions are typically made when no more than two people are in the room.

Finally – prepare meticulously for all eventualities. Don’t be caught out like Gunter Schabowski.

177 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page