Wiio’s law

September 28, 2012
  1. Communication usually fails, except by accident

    1.1 If communication can fail, it will.
    The factors that can make human communication fail might not be very serious, when each of them is taken in isolation. However, there are so many risks and they can interact in so many ways that it is statistically almost certain that communication fails.

    1.2 If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails
    Even if you pay great attention to make your communication unambiguous, effective, and understandable, there will still be too many risks you haven’t taken care of. Moreover, your measures are at best functional most of the time, which means that the combined probability for your communication to fail in at least one one of the ways in which it could fail is higher than you dare to imagine.

    1.3 If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there’s a misunderstanding
    When communication seems to be simple, easy and successful, it’s probably a total failure. The recipient looks happy and thankful, because he understood your message his way, which is what he likes, and very different from what you were actually saying.

    1.4 If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails
    Being content with the formulation of your message is a sure sign of having formulated it for yourself.

  2. If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage
    This Murphyistic remark is a warning about the very real possibility that ambiguities will be resolved in just the way you did not mean. Notice that this does not mean the worst misunderstanding you can imagine; rather, something worse – an interpretation you could not have imagined when you formulated your message.
  3. There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message
    People who understand you can be a real nuisance. It might take some time before you see that they completely failed to see what you meant, but that does not prevent them for propagating their ideas as yours.
  4. The more we communicate, the worse communication succeeds
    There’s a widespread superstition that the more you communicate the better. In reality, increasing the amount of communication most probably just causes more misunderstandings.
  5. The more we communicate, the faster misunderstandings propagate
    In addition to reformulating law 4, this refers to the fact that repetition strengthens false ideas. When people see the same message repeated over and over again, they usually start believing it. Even if your message happened to be true, they misunderstood it, so what they actually believe is not what you meant. And since the message has been presented so strongly, they tell it to their friends, who propagate it further, etc. Naturally, in that process, it gets distorted more and more.
  6. In mass communication, the important thing is not how things are but how they seem to be
    This law is just remotely related to the basic law. It is however more and more important: mass communication creates a world of its own, and people orient themselves in that virtual world rather than the real one. After all, reality is boring.
  7. The importance of a news item is inversely proportional to the square of the distance
    Even more remote to our main topic, this simply states that events close to us look much more important to us than remote events. When there is an aircraft accident, its importance in Finnish newspapers basically depends on whether there were any Finns on board, not on the number of people that died.
  8. The more important the situation is, the more probably you forget an essential thing that you remembered a moment ago
    Similarly to law 6, this illustrates one of the causes of failures in communication. It applies both to senders and ecipients. The recipient tends to forget relevant things, such as items which have been emphatically presented in the message as necessary requirements for understanding the rest of it. And the sender, upon receiving a request for clarification, such as a question during a lecture, will certainly be able to formulate an adequate, easy to understand answer – afterwards, when the situation is over.

How all human communication fails, except by accident according to Professor Wiio


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