“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” is one of my favorite George Bernard Shaw quotes.

We think that communication is happening every time two people speak to one another, when that is far from the case. From the Latin communicare (“to share”), communication is the act of conveying meaning.1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communication People often speak to each other without conveying their intended meaning.

A common communication breakdown occurs when one person is describing how things are while the other prescribes how things should be. Because we tend to process information from our own point of view, the former frequently interprets the latter’s prescriptive statements as descriptive and vice versa. To the describer, prescriptive statements seem like an inaccurate description of reality. And descriptive statements can be morally unpalatable if mistaken for prescriptive statements.2Compare “Hitler murdered six million Jews” with “Hitler should have murdered six million Jews”.

For example, two friends were recently discussing the topic of police shootings. One observed that police officers of all races are more likely to shoot black people during felony stops. The other argued that police should not let racial bias affect their shoot/no-shoot decision. The first friend attempted to correct the second (“It’s a fact!”)3Whether this is actually true is up for debate. If you’re interested, I would recommend a 2014 University of Colorado study (PDF) titled “The Police Officer’s Dilemma: A Decade of Research on Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot”., while the second reacted emotionally (“How could you say that cops should shoot black people more?!”). Although a lot of words were exchanged at progressively louder volumes, neither successfully conveyed their intended meaning.

Both descriptive and prescriptive statements have their time and place. Descriptive statements are important to people that are rewarded for accurately assessing reality for what it really is. Conversely, prescriptive statements are valuable tools for moving from current reality to a better one. Describers should beware Hume’s famous is-ought fallacy: just because “X is true” does not mean that “X should be true”.

To avoid the description versus prescription breakdown, both parties should agree on whether they’re discussing how things are or how things should be. If agreement cannot be reached, at least both sides can end the discussion without the illusion that communication has taken place.