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Misunderstanding is a communicative disorder that consists of the difference between what is meant by a sender and what is understood by the recipient .


The word misunderstanding consists of the confix "miss ..." and the word field "understand". "Miss ..." means "different", "wrong" or "bad". A word field with this confix receives a negative attribute, but does not express a total negation (this would be "not understand"). The word "understand" exists on five levels:

  • The recipient heard the message acoustically correctly.
  • The recipient understands a situation as it was meant by the sender.
  • Sender and recipient are of the same opinion.
  • Understand someone or a situation.
  • What has been learned through practice (“understand something”).

For the purposes of misunderstanding, only the first three aspects come into question.

Unexplained misunderstandings can trigger conflicts ; this applies to personal conflicts between at least two people up to international political conflicts between governments. It is therefore important to scientifically investigate the origins and effects of misunderstandings. Communication science is concerned with this . For them, the misunderstanding is a distortion angle between the transmitter and receiver. The sender is the speaker (or author), the receiver is the listener (reader) of what has been said (written). Such a distortion angle occurs when there is a difference ( difference value ) between what the sender wants to say and what the receiver wants to say . The recipient not only interprets what is heard, but also the non-verbal aspects and combines this mixture of verbal and non-verbal with their own attitudes and experiences . The greater the misunderstanding, the greater the angle of distortion. According to a principle of rhetoric, it does not matter what someone says, what matters is how it is received by the addressee.


A characteristic of misunderstandings is that they are only noticed when they have already happened. This results from the sequence of sending, receiving and interpreting . But not every misunderstanding is noticed; a man will never be able to fully understand the intent of each set as terms for different speakers, different meanings may have. Nevertheless, people are continually dependent on trusting in understanding the intention. However, this trust can cause a misinterpretation: An assumption that is still unsecured is rated too high and viewed as reliable knowledge - a misunderstanding.

Voices in the literature want to differentiate the misunderstanding from misunderstanding , misinterpretation and misunderstanding as further results of unsuccessful communication. According to this, there is no 100% agreement between what is meant and what is understood. Misunderstanding precedes understanding, and the communication partners assume mutual understanding until at least one has identified a misunderstanding.

Misunderstanding versus misunderstanding

A misunderstanding can go hand in hand with a misunderstanding and be its cause or consequence, but it can also occur independently of this - and detached from an immediate communicative act - as a fundamental misunderstanding or rejection or a lack of consent. While a misunderstanding is more likely to be seen as a mistake or a disruption in communication , a misunderstanding usually relates more to the attitude of an individual.

Misunderstanding versus misunderstanding

A misunderstanding is not to be equated with a misunderstanding. The misunderstanding is caused by a faulty acoustic understanding, or it is based on incorrect language.

Misunderstanding versus error

While a misunderstanding arises from the fact that one understands something differently than it was meant, an error in the narrower sense is about the falling apart of will and actual explanation ; the actual unity of the declaration of will then does not exist. Rather, there is a contradiction between the content of a declaration and the inclusion of this declaration by the contractual partner.

Creation of misunderstandings

A misunderstanding can only arise if reference problems or “interrogations” are the cause of a disturbed understanding process. A misunderstanding thus arises when there is a thematic or acoustic communication problem. The acoustic communication problem is not discussed further below.

The misunderstanding starts with the sender. This person can intentionally or unintentionally formulate incorrectly, so that what he actually meant is no longer expressed and the incorrect formulation is correctly interpreted by the recipient. The sender means something, but says something completely different, the recipient understands what is being said correctly. The second group of misunderstandings lies with the recipient. What is correctly said by the sender is heard by the recipient, but he understands something completely different. Correct formulation by the sender can lead to misunderstandings due to incorrect interpretation by the recipient. The following basic disorders can be derived from this chain:

  • What is meant is not said
  • said is not understood
  • understood does not agree.

Types of misunderstandings

Although there is usually no bad intent on the part of the sender, misunderstandings can arise in verbal and / or non-verbal communication. In cases of misunderstanding, non-verbal communication supports verbal communication. If this fails, this can be a cause of misunderstanding. In order to avoid misunderstandings, the sender must also ensure synchronicity between his verbal and non-verbal communication.

Verbal misunderstandings

They arise from the language used by the sender to convey certain messages to the recipient. Verbal communication is the main source of communication in language. However, ambiguous words and terms in particular , but also their embedding in sentences and formulations that can be interpreted in different ways, can lead to misunderstandings. Ambiguous statements may then possibly not be decoded into unambiguous statements by the recipient with the aid of the context . The script of what is meant is interpreted (decoded) differently by the recipient than it was intended by the sender.

Nonverbal misunderstandings

For them, language plays a secondary role at best, non-verbal communication in the form of facial expressions and gestures (summarized as kinesics ) counts first and foremost . In a uniform culture, kinesics is used to support verbal communication, as certain facial expressions and gestures are interpreted in a uniform manner. Anyone who speaks with crossed arms sends the message of a lack of openness or skepticism, although for them it should only mean a comfortable posture. The recipient not only evaluates the verbal communication, but also the non-verbal messages, which either reinforce or refute what has been said.

Clear up misunderstandings

The recipient must first of all correctly perceive the message from the sender acoustically. This requires first of all attention and interest . In addition, there must be no asynchrony between verbal and non-verbal communication.

A misunderstanding can only be cleared up if at least one person involved realizes that there is a misunderstanding. With verbal / non-verbal feedback from the recipient , the sender can be given the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings. Non-verbal feedback can already be generated by the recipient through doubtful or negative kinesics ( shaking his head ). The recipient's verbal feedback consists of a verbal summary of the main content of the sender's message or of queries (see paraphrasing , understanding ). If a misunderstanding is not recognized or recognized and not eliminated by all involved, this can at least lead to incorrect impressions, and in the worst case to wrong decisions with legal consequences.


Most of the misunderstandings that occur every day can contribute to conflict, but are legally irrelevant. However, some misunderstandings can be of legal concern.

In civil law , an error has serious consequences, so that a separate “doctrine of error” has been developed here ( see also contract ). According to Section 155 of the German Civil Code (BGB), a contract is deemed not to have been concluded although the contracting parties meant this, but in reality they have not reached an agreement, unless it can be assumed that they would have concluded the contract in the knowledge of the dissent . The declaring party has an interest in ensuring that the will pursued with his declaration is decisive for the interpretation by the recipient, even if this will is only insufficiently expressed in the declaration; the recipient, on the other hand, wants to apply the declaration as he has understood it. This interest of the declaring party is protected by Section 133 of the German Civil Code, according to which, when interpreting a declaration of intent, the real will is to be researched and not to be adhered to in the literal sense of an expression. The recipient of the declaration must therefore always try to research the true will of the person making the declaration and also to use the context of the declaration. When interpreting declarations of intent that need to be received, two potentially conflicting interests may conflict with each other: If the declaration is misleading, linguistically incorrect or even imprecise, then what is intended by the declaring party still applies if the context of the situation (previous conversations) clearly shows that what he wanted to explain and / or if the recipient understood the declaration in the sense intended by the declaring party.

When designing it does not depend only on the true will of the declarant, but on how this will by the receiver to good faith and the prevailing practice be construed needed. Overall, Sections 133 and 157 of the German Civil Code (BGB), when interpreting declarations of intent that require receipt, are neither unilaterally based on what the declaring party really wanted nor on what the recipient actually understood. Rather, they assume how the recipient should have understood a declaration in good faith and custom. This interpretation method is also called “interpretation according to the recipient horizon on an objective basis” or so-called normative interpretation.

Sequences of misunderstandings

Many misunderstandings are often not even noticed - and when they are, they are dismissed as unimportant. However, it is difficult to distinguish whether or not this is a mistake in the given situation.

Sequential chains of misunderstandings can be aptly described using the example of the silent post game. When messages are passed on, the original message is falsified. Misunderstandings are not thwarted here. There is no need to ask, what is understood is passed on by adding your own interpretation. Sequential chains of misunderstandings do not necessarily have to go through several recipients / senders, as is the case with the silent post game. For fatal consequences from sequential chains of misunderstandings, it is sufficient if two senders / receivers repeatedly misunderstand each other and use these misunderstandings to base their further communication .

Misunderstandings in Folk Tales

The misunderstanding is a defining part of many narratives ; the folkloric narrative research distinguishes between three types: the wrong understanding of words, the misconception of an intentioned statement and the mutual lack of understanding due to different views. This is either an acoustic problem (e.g. with the hearing impaired) or a linguistic one (e.g. in the case of a foreign language) or a semantic (e.g. by taking a phrase literally) or a provoked (e.g. due to deception using a homonym ) or a cultural one (e.g. in the course of a limited perception of reality ). Serious misunderstandings often end tragically and are therefore part of sagas . To laugh -provoking misunderstandings are, however, in farces and jokes addressed.


The French language knows this misunderstanding as malentendu , while English speaks of misunderstanding . An intercultural misunderstanding exists when at least one interlocutor does not understand the language, the code, the conventions, attitudes or forms of behavior that are typical for the other person's culture or understands it incorrectly. Human language lacks reliability because information encoded into decoded does not always match and kinesics and intonation can make decoding difficult. In addition, some facial expressions / gestures have different meanings in other cultures and can therefore be misunderstood by the recipient.


  • Walter Krämer and Götz Trenkler : Lexicon of popular errors. 500 capital misunderstandings, prejudices and thinking errors from sunset to zeppelin . Eichborn, Frankfurt am Main 1996, ISBN 3-8218-0479-3 (bestseller, which served as a model for numerous successors)
  • Eckhard Henscheid, Gerhard Henschel, Brigitte Kronauer: Cultural history of misunderstandings. Studies on Spiritual Life . Reclam, Stuttgart 1997 (numerous essays on misunderstandings of all kinds)
  • Volker Hinnenkamp: Misunderstandings in conversations. An empirical study in the context of interpretative sociolinguistics . West German Verlag, Opladen 1998, ISBN 3-531-13074-9
  • Siegfried Neumann: Misunderstandings. In: Encyclopedia of Fairy Tales ; Volume 9 (1999), Col. 707-717.
  • Veit Didczuneit, Anja Eichler, Lieselotte Kugler (eds.): Misunderstandings: Stolpersteine ​​der Kommunikation , companion volume to the exhibition of the same name in the Museums for Communication, Braus edition at Wachter Verlag, Heidelberg 2008, ISBN 3-8990-4311-1 .

See also

Web links

Wiktionary: misunderstanding  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A b Hermann Paul / Georg Objartel / Helmut Hänne / Heidrun Kämper, German Dictionary , 2002, p. 1106.
  2. Elke Donalies, Die Wortbildung des Deutschen , 2002, p. 34.
  3. a b c Monika Haunerdinger / Hans-Jürgen Probst, Cutting Costs , 2005, p. 167 ff.
  4. Ernst Martin / Uwe Wawrinowski, Observation Teaching , 1991, p. 173.
  5. Wolfgang Falkner, Understanding, Misunderstanding and Misunderstandings , 1997, p. 56.
  6. Wolfgang Falkner, Understanding, Misunderstanding and Misunderstandings , 1997, p. 2.
  7. What is acoustically incorrectly perceived also belongs to the misunderstandings in the conversation analysis
  8. Sidonie Kellerer, Malentendu , 2009, p. 10
  9. Munich Commentary on the BGB, Volume 1, General Part (§§ 1–240), 3rd edition, 1993, p. 1174.