Semantics, according to the Encarta English Dictionary, is the “study of meaning in language.” Semanticists also analyze the use of symbols and logic in language. Because effective communication depends on the sender and receiver sharing the same meaning, semantic noise – missteps in the process – must be kept to the minimum. We express opinions, beliefs, attitudes and values both directly and indirectly through the language we use. Unfortunately, when we are not aware of how our predispositions filter the messages we send and the messages we receive, semantic noise can send a communication plan into a tailspin.
While it is virtually impossible to step outside of the experiences that inform our values and attitudes, understanding the nature of semantic noise will help us recognize when it occurs in a business setting and take precautions to avoid it. Becoming an objective, intentional communicator who knows how and when to invoke the appropriate type of message at the right time requires a little time spent on the subject of linguistics. After all, language use is inextricably related to effective communication
All languages are comprised of sounds that make up words, and the words are then pronounced in a structure that is used either formally or informally within society. Because these sounds evolved differently from culture to culture, they have been arbitrarily assigned by native speakers to symbolize a thing or an idea. The more abstract the symbolic representation, the more imprecise the meaning and the greater the chance that the speaker and the audience may assign a different meaning to the abstraction.
Even within the same language words undergo semantic change over time. A given word may refer to one type of thing and then become generalized to represent other things that are similar. The product brand name Kleenex has undergone such a meaning change and now the name is used by many when referring to any light, disposable, rectangular product that is applied to the nose. Conversely, a word may start out as a general description of something and, over time, refer only to a specific thing. For example, the word starveonce meant to die. Today the word has a more specific meaning, which is to die of hunger(Fromkin & Rodman, 1973).
The meaning of words also shifts over time. In their book, An Introduction to Language, Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman trace the meaning of several words from Old English to Middle English and to current times. To be sillymeant to be happyin Old English. In Middle English the word meant to be naive. Today, sillymeans foolish, according to the Encarta Dictionary. However, according the online Urban Dictionary, it means to be funny in a cuteor weird way.
Popular culture and technology contribute new words to the English language each year. In 2012, for instance, the dictionary publishers at Merriam-Webster added 15 words or word combinations, including cloud computing, game changer, energy drinkand aha moment. In business, each industry develops its own vernacular. Managers in a high-tech firm may use the word “interface” to mean “a communication.” Needing to “shut down” or have “down time” is to take a break from work. One employee may ask another person to “ping” her with an update, instead of saying to a co-worker, “Send me another email when you know more.”
These words become a type of shorthand to quickly get a message across to those who work with us in the same company. Expressions – and even acronyms – that develop within a company serve to separate the language used internally from that used to communicate to external audiences. In a multi-national company, each geographical area may use company-wide expressions and add their own regionally adopted words and phrases to internal messages and presentations. Such specialized words with understanding limited to one group within an organization can become a hindrance when communicating across geographical regions.