Four Ways Humans Are Terrible at Communicating, According to Science

Four Ways Humans Are Terrible at Communicating, According to Science

As tempting as it can be to set up a fortress of gaming monitors and Mountain Dew and never speak to another human again, communication is a tragic necessity of life. Even if it’s just to instruct the DoorDash driver where to drop your food before you watch them leave through a crack in the blinds so you can dart out and grab it before anyone sees you in your day-three pajamas, we have to make words and faces to get our needs met. Which is too bad, because we absolutely suck Shrek’s verdant green balls at it.


If you’ve ever reached the end of your rope in an online argument and begun mocking your opponent, only to feel even more superior and amused when they didn’t pick up on your sarcasm, good job — you made it to your teen years. But it’s just as likely that, at some point, someone did the same thing to you, and by necessity, you didn’t notice.

Friends or strangers, young or old, man or woman or other, it doesn’t matter. (Mostly — we’ll get to that.) Everyone is terrible at recognizing sarcasm in writing, even when they’re very confident that they can. In fact, the more confident and powerful you feel, the worse you are at communicating sarcasm. It turns out it wasn’t that idiot on Reddit’s fault at all — you were probably the one who sucked all along. Now that’s irony for you.

There is, however, one group of people that stands out as uniquely bad at understanding sarcasm, even in spoken conversation, and that’s people over 65. It’s unclear if it’s a generational difference or because significant difficulty detecting sarcasm is an early sign of dementia, but either way, don’t get sarcastic at grandma. Even if she gets it, she deserves better.


You’ve almost certainly been kept awake at some point by a vivid memory of an interaction with a hot person of your preferred gender, only to realize way too late that what you perceived at the time as an innocent demonstration of cool things they could do with their tongue was actually a bid to get into your pants. We’re not just guessing — people (straight ones, anyway) are universally awful at detecting when someone is flirting with them.

If you’re familiar with the darker corners of the internet, you’d think men would be the primary victims of this phenomenon because women can rightly assume everyone is flirting with them all the time, but it’s just the opposite. In one study, men correctly identified a woman flirting with them 36 percent of the time, which is abysmal, but women only correctly identified a man flirting with them 18 percent of the time. Those percentages are roughly the same for outside observers, so don’t count on your buddies to pick up your slack, either. There are evolutionary explanations for this, but according to the study’s lead author, the women were just a lot clearer about their intentions, which also flies in the face of accepted gremlin wisdom.

In fact, according to a different study, men are much more likely to perceive that a woman is flirting with them when she isn’t. Basically, if you’re a straight man, whatever you deduce about a woman’s interest in you, you’re wrong. You can’t even use that to your advantage by assuming the opposite of your assumption because now that assumption is wrong. It’s Schrodinger’s flirt.


Everyone knows a guy who claims he can always tell if someone is lying. If pressed, he’ll hem and haw but eventually delight in telling you that there are universal “tells,” such as being unable to look someone in the eye or talking really fast, that are dead giveaways and “microexpressions” like failing to smile with your eyes that mean someone is faking an emotion. He got that last one from Lie to Me, because these guys always learn their skills from TV.

But even the Lie to Me guy will tell you that microexpressions alone are insufficient to discern lying. According to him, it has to be combined with a number of body language and voice indicators, and per actual scientists, those aren’t reliable, either. The truth is that even people whose jobs depend on being able to spot liars aren’t very good at it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a potential terrorist or your own child — no one does much better than chance. In some cases — such as surprise interrogations, when people understandably act nervous, which is generally regarded as suspicious — supposed experts do worse than chance. You’d be better off flipping a coin than you would taking a seminar from a guy who claims to be a human lie detector (which is probably true enough, given that those don’t work very well either).

A lot of behaviors that we associate with lying have no real relationship to it, and we tend to overestimate the importance of the ones that do. No, looking someone in the eye doesn’t mean you’re telling the truth, and talking fast, blinking a lot or making unfriendly faces doesn’t mean you’re not. Some people just have resting smelled-a-fart face. We’re actually much better at telling when someone is lying when we can’t see them. Which there might be another reason for…

Facial Expressions

If you’re relying on facial expressions to tell what someone is feeling, you’re in for a world of hurt, potentially literally. It turns out there are about as many ways to interpret a face as there are people in the world. In a study where participants created and rated models of faces expressing different emotions, pretty much no one made the exact same face for any emotion, and there was tons of room for misinterpretation. Fear and sadness, for example, tend to look a lot alike. So do pain and sexual pleasure, which can be disastrous in any naked situation that doesn’t require a tarp.

Some of them can be put down to cultural differences, and not just “modern Westerner versus heretofore uncontacted indigenous tribe” ones. The difference can be as subtle as “rural versus urban.” Some of it also has to do with our biases. For example, a person who has depression will see sadness in a neutral face more often than someone who doesn’t. Whatever the case, we’re so bad at it that even computers are better at recognizing the subtle differences between, say, a happy grin and an annoyed one than we are. 

As an added bonus, if you shove your phone in someone’s face so your facial recognition app can determine how to respond to them, their emotions suddenly become very clear.

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