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Sometimes couples communicate worse than strangers

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Sometimes married people and friends just think they're communicating, say psychologists.

When it comes to simple communication, researchers found sometimes couples communicate like strangers. Findings from a new study show couples often use ambiguous phrases, creating the ‘closeness-communication bias.”

Boaz Keysar, a professor in psychology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on communications says, “People commonly believe that they communicate better with close friends than with strangers. They found how ‘closeness communication bias’ can inhibit communication in a series of experiments involving 24 married couples.

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The researchers had married couples sit with their backs to each other. They were asked to decipher the meaning behind ambiguous phrases used in everyday conversation. The goal was to see if couples understand each other any better than strangers do. They found the couples consistently overestimated how well they communicate and to a greater degree than with strangers.

Kenneth Savitsky, professor of psychology at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass designed the experiment and lead the study. He cites the following example about how communication between spouses can be strange: “A wife who says to her husband, ‘it’s getting hot in here,’ as a hint for her husband to turn up the air conditioning a notch, may be surprised when he interprets her statement as a coy, amorous advance instead.”

The psychologists say, sometimes closeness to a spouse or friend can lead to poor communication that is no better than talking to a stranger, found in the experiment.

University of Chicago