Top 7 serious miscommunications from history

Friday, May 19, 2017 11:00

Dan Hughes by Dan Hughes

Whether it be cultural, lingual, or technological barriers, history is full of blunders with serious consequences. Here are seven examples of serious miscommunications from history. 

Moon walk and talk 

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and took his first step, millions of people were glued to their TVs around the world. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” was beamed back to earth and forever immortalised in TV history.

However, this wasn’t his original wording. Armstrong’s transmission was interrupted briefly so that the original phrase “one small step for a man” lost the word ‘a’. The resulting transmission actually flows much better and by way of technical failure we may have actually be given an improved lunar catchphrase.  


The Derek Bentley case 

This famous case from the 1950s centres around Derek William Bentley, a 19 year old with learning difficulties and health problems who ended up on a rooftop with a 16 year old companion Chris after a failed burglary attempt. A police officer climbed onto the roof and asked Craig to give him the gun he was holding.

Bentley shouted the phrase “Let him have it Chris”, arguably quite ambiguous in nature, the slang interpretation of course meaning ‘shoot him’.  Bentley was convicted as a party to murder, by theEnglish lawprinciple of common purpose, "joint enterpriseafter the judge, Lord Chief Justice Goddard, had described Bentley as "mentally aiding the murder of Police Constable Sidney Miles".

Bentley was sentenced to death but a 45-year-long campaign to win Derek Bentley a posthumouspardon was granted in 1993, and then a further campaign overturn his murder conviction was successful in 1998. The fact that he was sentenced to death over the interpretation of one sentence shows how difficult it can be to give a completely clear communication that can’t be misunderstood.   

Lost in translation 

World War II had lots of pivotal moments and the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were no exception. Yet that event may not have happened had it not been for a mis-translation of the Japanese when the United States asked if they would surrender.

The Japanese responded with the word “mokusatsu” which meanswe withhold comment – pending discussion.” However the message was translated as “we treat your request with contempt.

This was promoted widely by the media and President Truman responded with the use of atomic weapons, ultimately ending the war but costing the lives of hundreds of thousands. We can only assume these responses are checked more carefully in modern times. 


Not okay 

Largely across the western world, creaking the ‘OK’ sign with your index finger and thumb has positive connotations and is seen as a good thing. However you might want to re-consider using this gesture when on holiday in certain places.

In Venezuela and Turkey giving the ok to someone is akin to telling them that they are homosexual. Interestingly, in France and Belgium it insinuates worthlessness based on the number zero. 

But as former president Richard Nixon found out in the 50s, flashing this sign having just got off your plane, on national television in Brazil, was the equivalent of a middle finger being raised at the crowd. Let’s just say they were not best pleased. 


Bad day for Jimmy 

Former President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 visit to Poland could have gone much better had his interpreter been up to the task. When expressing his keenness to learn the Polish peoples ‘desires for the future’, his interpreter suggested he wanted to express ‘sexual desire for the country’.  

The interpreter also managed to translate how happy Carter was to be in Poland, into how he was ‘happy to grasp at Poland's private parts’  as well as the phrase I left the United States this morning’ intoI left the United States, never to return’. 

READ MORE: Why The Apprentice gives project management a bad name

Later on the same trip at a banquet dinner, Carter smartly opted for a different interpreter. Unfortunately that interpreter couldn’t understand the president’s English so decided to keep quiet and never translated anything. They do say that if you can’t say anything nice, don't say anything at all...


Fired by conference call 

In 2013, CEO of AOL Tim Armstrong announced that AOL would be making some changes to it’s new subsidiary, Patch. Around 100 people were packed into the cafeteria with several hundred others listening in through conference calling. 

They were expecting to hear news from Armstrong around making Patch profitable again and were anticipating some redundancies as a result. Armstrong was in a flow of speech that commanded everyone in the room to fully commit themselves to the company when he suddenly stopped and told Abel Lenz, Patch’s Creative Director, to put his camera down before immediately firing him in front of everyone. 


Media leaks spread the news so that by the time the meeting had finished, it was largely in the public domain. Four days after he fired Lenz, Armstrong sent AOL employees an apology for his behaviour. 

Armstrong’s (later heavily dissected and reviewed) email to his staff members did little to quell the sense of distaste for his behaviour. He wrote in a passive voice and more or less tried to justify his behaviour rather than simply apologise. He said he learned ‘a tremendous lesson,’ although never actually said what that was.  

Sometimes, owning a mistake and simply apologising can go much further than a long winded justification. 

Cereal mistake

Kellog’s had a cereal called ‘Bran Buds’, which in most countries was a perfectly acceptable name. Where it wasn’t so well received was in Sweden, where it translated to ‘Burned Farmer’. No one wants a farmer to go the lengths of that kind of harm so we can eat cereal in the morning and unsurprisingly the name was changed to something less alarming. 

Don't be like Nixon - get your communication skills on the right track. Check out some of our professional training and careers courses. 

Learn more

Posted in Careers and Training