Mixed Signals: How People Communicate Differently

By Shirley TienApril 26, 2023

During a conversation, when you get a wink or a pat on the arm or are called “sweetie,” how do you interpret those gestures? Some may find them friendly and endearing. Others, however, may find them uncomfortable and even offensive. People communicate differently, and it’s important to properly interpret these mixed signals.

The Army is made up of a diverse group, and Soldiers come from different generations and different parts of the country and even the world. Cultural upbringings play a role in different personalities, so even someone’s simple greeting can be misinterpreted. For example, some cultures kiss both cheeks as a "Hello.” While that may seem inappropriate to some, for others it’s quite normal. Different generations can also have conflicting feelings about modern slang. Baby Boomers may find the greeting “Hey, B” offensive, while millennials find it an intimate welcome. There are many mixed signals out there, and Aberdeen Proving Ground Sexual Harassment/ Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) Program Manager Tracy Marshall has some tips on how to differentiate them.

Marshall’s Dos:

• Be concise: Being upfront and providing as much information as possible to be sure others won’t misconstrue any interactions is the best approach. Be respectful, and always discuss sensitive topics privately.

• Ask questions: If there’s any confusion or language that might come across as inappropriate, prompt clarification. Requesting feedback gives others the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings.

• Practice active listening: Be sure you are giving people your undivided attention, to prevent any miscommunication.

Marshall’s Don’ts:

• Be too casual: Using specific slang or pet names may be appropriate for some individuals but not all. Take precaution and be aware of your audience.

• Bring up controversial topics: Religion and politics are common examples of subjects about which people have differing opinions. It’s best to broach the topics carefully as to not offend, or avoid them altogether.

For those who have trouble discerning social cues, Marshall’s advice is to “be careful of some of your facial expressions and body language. Be mindful of your tone of voice, personal space and boundaries with other personnel.”

Although misunderstandings, whether verbal or physical, may be between acquaintances or new colleagues, communication in general can still be a challenge for couples or even families. The SHARP program offers a variety of tools to help Soldiers and Family members communicate better and build healthy relationships. The Army Resilience Directorate also provides resources to help service members improve their communication skills.

The more we empower ourselves with cultural knowledge and are aware of acceptable social behavior, the less likely false accusations of sexual harassment or sexual assault will occur. Be friendly, be mindful, and most importantly, be sure whoever you’re interacting with feels comfortable. There is "us” in trust. Communicate in a manner that evokes others’ trust.