Will My Message Get Through the Noise?

In a former article about intercultural communication, we already mentioned some important sources of noise in the communication process: stereotypes, prejudices and other cultural variables such as non-verbal differences, differences in codification and decodification of symbols, differences in family structure or interpersonal relationships and differences in linguistic skills between the participants in the communication process.

We saw that it helps to try to slip into the shoes of the other in order to learn to codify our messages and to decodify the other’s messagesadequately. A sound knowledge of the own culture is regarded as the best way of preparing the field for the understanding of other cultures.
Communication usually takes place within a social cultural system which according to Vicente Romano[1] is defined by economic, political and social or cultural variables and is constantly re-defining them in a dynamic process.

Language itself is one of these cultural variables and deserves a special consideration. In the last decades, several authors have written about the linguistic intoxication which referrs to what Hermann Hesse in his last novel The Glass Bead Game once called the inflation of the concepts during the age of the feulleton[2] .
Citing the brazilian author Millor Fernandes, Eduardo Galeano  wrote in an article back in 2002: “In order to ignore reality, the ostrich buries his head in the tv set.”[3]
The kind of intercultural communication we are talking about here is the communication between a few powerful people and the exploited masses. It is manipulation and takes place through the mass media, especially through the news programs on television and radio. Here, language isn’t used any more to describe reality as it is, instead it serves to cover reality through euphemistic expressions. For example, the bribes politicians receive are called “contributions”, the treasons they commit are called “pragmatism”. When we hear “the international community demands” we should hear the financial dictatorship imposes.
These are examples of modern news programs, but the manipulative use of language is not an recent invention. On September 2, 1898, the battle of Omdurman took place between english-egyptian forces and the native population of the Sudan. 48 english soldiers died, while 27,000 people from Sudan were killed. The english government ‘explained’: “We are civilizing the Sudan through commerce.” What they should have said is We are commercializing the Sudan through civilization.

In some theories of communication the use of euphemistic expressions in mass communication is called semantic noise. It produces a distortion of the transmitted information and can serve for disinformational strategies using maximimization, minimization or change of the sense of a certain event.

Furthermore, the persons in charge of the selection and writing of the news for the periodical  transmission on radio, television or via the written press are embeded in a social cultural system and have their personal political and social preferences. They decide, which event will be covered in the news and how it is done.

The same applies to the executives of the record companies. They have the power to admit or reject a band or a musician and that is how they decide, which ‘artists’ will be presented to the public. Besides, the term ‘artist’ is another example of semantic distortion. Think of a barely dressed barbie ‘singing’ on a tv show and being praised for her musical skills, which in reality do not exist. Most probably she is using the playback of one of her recordings, doing lip synch and trying to make the audience believe that she is preforming live. In some cases, the recording itself might have been recorded with the voice of somebody else who probably doesn’t look that attractive but has a good voice for singing. The product transmitted through television stations at the service of the music industry doesn’t show the things as they really are: a musically untalented but ‘good loking’ person (a term that requires further examination) is acting in front of the cameras. Of course, the comentators won’t express this. Instead, they praise his or her -absent- musical skills over and over again, believing that if a  false information is repeated enough times, it becomes true.

Stereotypes and stigmatization are some of the most significant sources of noise in the communication process. Stereotypes reduce the diversity of reality to a few simplistic models.
Stereotypes are not neutral, the majority of our stereotypes offer targets for abuse and socially accepted aggression[4] . Histroically speaking, stereotypes  have been a significant mean for social control.

We have discussed a variety of types of noise that interfere with the intented meaning of a message on its way to the received meaning. There are technical noises associated to the conditions of the communication channel. They may alter the exactitude of the emitted signs that compose the message. If we construct a theoretical situation, where the emitter of a message could receive his own emitted message after it had passed through a channel like an ambient with loud music, e.g., he would probably receive only part of the message. In addition to these technical sources of noise, there are semantic sources of distortion like the social cultural differences between the emitter and the receiver of messages.

The article would not be complete, if we wouldn’t mention another of the sources of noise that interfere with the communication: the rumours.
A rumour is a kind of not verified news which is transmitted in at an informal and interpersonal level. It is like a proposition to believe something and its propagation is based on its credibility. Conspiracy theories are an example of rumours.

After taking in account all the above mentioned sources of noise, we are aware of the difficulties of an effective communication, especially when the communication process takes place between participants with different social cultural backgrounds. So, if we want to assure that our messages get through the nosie, we must consider the idiosyncracy of the people we send our messages to. This will augment the probablilities that they understand what we mean.


  1. Vicente Romano, Los intermediarios de la cultura, Pablo del Río, Madrid, 1997 ^
  2. Hermann Hesse, Das Glasperlenspiel, Suhrkamp, Berlin 1951 ^
  3. Eduardo Galeano, Las paradojas de la máquina (The Paradoxes of the machine), http://www.analitica.com/bitblioteca/galeano/paradojas.asp ^
  4. García and Estrella Israel, Comunicación Intercultural in Comunicación y estudios universitarios, Revista de ciencias de la información, CUE, San Pedro, 1991 ^

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