Key Takeaways
  • Confusion and miscommunication are common when particular terms of art are the same as or similar to terms within the common vernacular.

  • This problem becomes even more complex when multiple speakers use the same terms but employ different meanings.

  • For effective communication to occur, a common understanding must exist for both speaker and listener of what is meant by certain terms.

In today's litigious society, an OSH professional may be called to testify in front of a jury, regardless of the merit of the case against the individual's firm. Considering this, the individual must be able to communicate effectively with jury members. A serious potential barrier is the language employed by the speaker on the stand. While the OSH professional may know precisely what s/he is speaking about, such knowledge is valueless unless it can be effectively conveyed to the jury members.

In linguistics, semantics is the science relating to the meaning of (or arising from distinctions between) different words or symbols. Most of us probably assume that we are effective communicators because we can generally convey information to others to our own degree of satisfaction. What we may not recognize is that without bidirectional interaction with the recipients of our messages, we have relatively little ability to judge whether the meaning of our message has been accurately received by the listener (even if the words themselves were).

When speaking or writing using words or phrases with concrete, accepted meanings, this is generally not a major hurdle. We have all at one time or another seen a cat or a rock---we can point to such objects and all agree that one is a small, furry creature frequently kept as a pet, while the other is a firm, hard, lifeless object. Communicators rarely become confused in exchanges dealing with such specific referents. The same is usually true of even more abstract concepts that have a mutually accepted meaning within a subset of the general population that shares common experience or training. Difficulties may arise when the definitions are specific, but not exclusive. Defining horse as "a quadruped animal usually used for riding with a saddle or pulling loads in an agricultural setting" may seem adequate, until one considers that the same definition might equally well apply to a camel or water buffalo depending on the experience of the listener.

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