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Chandler: Oh, I think this is the episode of Three's Company where there's some kind of misunderstanding!
Phoebe: Oh. Well then I've already seen this one. [Turns off TV]
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A result of a principal character misinterpreting something. In comedy, this often leads to further and further misunderstandings, each more comical than the last, until things get straightened out at the end of the episode. In dramas, the principal character usually exerts much effort trying to prepare for a "showdown," only to discover at the last second it was "all a huge mistake."

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This trope is one of the basic elements of Farce, but can lead to an Idiot Plot. Related to Poor Communication Kills.

Has nothing to do with the Britney Spears song of the same name.

See also Public Medium Ignorance.


Subtropes:

  • Abuse Mistake: Either non-abuse is mistaken for abuse, or abuse is mistaken for non-abuse.
  • Accidental Dance Craze: Someone is moving about for a different reason (Potty Dance, Squirrels in My Pants, feeling itchy, etc) but is mistaken for dancing and the "dance" catches on.
  • Accidental Innuendo: The creators did not intend anything saucy by the dialogue, but the audience still interprets it as lewd anyway.
  • Accidental Pervert: A man unintentionally says or does something near women that makes him look like a perverted creep.
  • Accidental Proposal: Somebody fasely thinks that another person is proposing to them.
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  • Actually, That's My Assistant: The big cheese's assistant is mistaken for the one in charge.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: The phrasing of a statement allows multiple, confusing interpretations.
  • And You Thought It Was a Game: A character thinks an event is staged but it's not.
  • And You Thought It Was Real: A fake situation (such as a roleplay, a work of fiction, or a simulation) or some people practising for something gets mistaken for something real.
  • Bait-and-Switch Accusation: Someone thinks they're about to be accused of the thing they're keeping secret, but in reality, they're being accused of something different.
  • Bait-and-Switch Sentiment: Somebody thinks another character is being sentimental when they're not.
  • A Bloody Mess: A red liquid is mistaken for blood.
  • Calling Me a Logarithm: Mistaking an unfamiliar word for an insult.
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  • Cassandra Truth: Somebody is mistaken for lying.
  • Celebration Miscalculation: One or more characters think it's a special occasion but it isn't.
  • Coincidental Accidental Disguise: A character accidentally ends up looking like something (such as a ghost, a particular monster, etc) and being mistaken for it.
  • Delirious Misidentification: Someone is "not all there" (high, seriously injured, etc) and mistakes someone else for a different, specific person.
  • Discriminate and Switch: Someone is mistaken for discriminating a person for a particular reason, but it turns out there's a different reason they don't like this person.
    • Mistaken for Misogynist: A man (usually) accidentally says or does something that can be interpreted as sexist against women.
    • Mistaken for Racist: A person accidentally says or does something that can be interpreted as racist.
  • Dude Looks Like a Lady: Mistaking a feminine-looking man for a woman.
  • Fake High: Someone eats or drinks something they think is a drug but it isn't, which leads to them mistakenly believing themselves to be drunk or high.
  • Fake Rabies: A character (usually a dog) is mistaken for being rabid because of something frothy on their mouth.
  • Faux Death: A character is in suspended animation and mistaken for dead.
  • File Mixup: Somebody's files get mixed up with someone else's.
  • Giant Footprint Reveal: A footprint is so big, it's initially not recognized as a footprint.
  • God Guise: A mortal is mistaken for being divine.
  • Help Mistaken for Attack: A character is trying to help someone, but a third person thinks they're attacking the one being helped.
  • I Am Not Weasel: Mistaking an animal for a species it plainly isn't.
  • Identical Twin Mistake: Someone gets confused with their identical twin.
  • Innocent Inaccurate: A naive character mistakes a dark or adult scenario for an innocuous one.
  • MacGuffin Blindness: Two opposing factions are both looking for a particular object. The object is right in front of them, but they don't realise.
  • Mistaken Age: Having an incorrect assumption on how old a person is.
  • Mistaken Confession: A character confesses to something because they wrongly believe the person they're talking to is trying to get that secret out of them.
  • Mistaken for Aliens: Oddly-behaving human beings are mistaken for being extraterrestrials.
  • Mistaken for Apocalypse: The world is not actually ending.
  • Mistaken for Badass: A character is mistaken for being very formidable and competent.
  • Mistaken for Betrayal: Someone is wrongly suspected of disloyalty or treachery.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Someone wrongly believes that another person is engaged in an adulterous sexual affair.
  • Mistaken for Clown: A character thinks another character in a strange outfit is a clown.
  • Mistaken for Dog: A character thinks they've gotten a dog or cat or whatever, but instead it's (literally) a different beast.
  • Mistaken for Dyed: A person's hair color is assumed to be dyed when it isn't.
  • Mistaken for Dying: A misunderstanding results in a person coming to the conclusion that they, or someone they know, is going to die soon.
  • Mistaken for Evidence: A suspect in an investigation has something that looks like a clue but isn't.
  • Mistaken for Exhibit: A character at a museum/art gallery/etc mistakes a mundane thing for art.
  • Mistaken for Foreigner: Someone is assumed to not be a native citizen of the country they're actually from.
    • Mistaken Nationality: Someone is assumed to be a member of an ethnicity or nationality they're not part of.
  • Mistaken for Gay: Someone incorrectly assumes that a straight person is gay.
  • Mistaken for an Imposter: The real person is mistaken for someone impersonating them.
  • Mistaken for Junkie: Someone is assumed to be a drug addict.
  • Mistaken for Masturbating: A person is thought to be masturbating when they aren't.
  • Mistaken for Murderer: An innocent person is assumed to be a killer because the real killer resembles them, or because they did things that caused witnesses to assume they killed or are planning to kill someone.
  • Mistaken for Object of Affection: Someone tries to romance someone else but does it to the wrong person.
  • Mistaken for Pedophile: An innocent person gets in trouble for statements or actions that give people the impression that they have an inappropriate interest in children.
  • Mistaken for Prank Call: Someone phones someone else for a bizarre/unlikely, but sincere, reason (such as "There are monsters attacking" or "You've won a competition") and the person on the other end of the line mistakes it for a Prank Call.
  • Mistaken for Pregnant: A woman is thought to be pregnant when she isn't.
  • Mistaken for Profound: Something is mistaken for being deep or intelligent when it isn't.
  • Mistaken for Prostitute: A woman who dresses provocatively is wrongly assumed to be a prostitute.
  • Mistaken for Quake: A large object or creature is shaking the ground and the shaking is mistaken for an earthquake.
  • Mistaken for Romance: Two people are believed to be lovers when they're not.
  • Mistaken for Servant: A character gets mistaken for hired help.
  • Mistaken for Special Guest: Someone's expecting a guest who's special in some way (an inspector, a celebrity), etc, and mistakes a random person for the special guest.
  • Mistaken for Spies: Someone is assumed to be a secret agent or infiltrator.
  • Mistaken for Subculture: Somebody mistakes someone else for being in a subculture they're not because of their clothes, hair (or lack thereof) or behaviour.
  • Mistaken for Suicidal: Someone is mistaken for being suicidal, because they showed signs of depression and/or looked like they were ready to kill themselves.
  • Mistaken for Terrorist: An innocent person is assumed to be a violent political extremist. Especially happens to people who are (or get mistaken for being) Muslims.
  • Mistaken for Thief: An innocent person is assumed to be stealing something.
  • Mistaken for Undead: A living person is assumed to be a ghost or zombie.
    • Actually Not a Vampire: A person with vampire-like characteristics and habits is mistaken for an actual vampire.
  • Mistaken from Behind: Someone mistakes a stranger for someone they know because the stranger looks like the person they know from behind.
  • Mistaken Identity: Wrongly guessing that someone is somebody else.
  • Mistaken Message: Someone writes someone else a note, but another person reads the note and makes a wrong assumption about it.
  • Mistakenly Attacked Mole: A mole in an enemy organization is attacked by someone on their own side who mistakes them for an actual traitor.
  • Mistook the Dominant Lifeform: Aliens think that we're the ones who aren't sapient and a different species is.
  • No Longer with Us: A common euphemism for death turns out to be literal or is mistaken for literal by a naive listener.
  • Non Voyage Party: A party for a character is mistaken for a party celebrating their departure.
  • Not Actually the Ultimate Question: A character asks a question that's mistaken for a big one, but is quite mundane.
  • Not His Blood: A character is mistaken for bleeding but is actually covered in someone else's blood.
  • Not-So-Forgotten Birthday: A character thinks another character forgot their birthday but actually they were planning a Surprise Party.
  • Not What It Looks Like: A character finds themselves in a compromising position and hastily tries to explain to the others that they're not doing what it looks like they're doing.
  • Out-of-Context Eavesdropping: Someone overhears something or intentionally eavesdrops and gets the wrong idea.
  • Please Wake Up: A dead person is mistaken for sleeping.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Failure to explain your intentions clearly will have disastrous consequences.
  • Real Joke Name: Someone's name is mistaken for a joke name.
  • Relative Error: A relative is mistaken for a lover.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Someone is thought to be deceased and has to prove to everyone that they are still alive.
  • Stripper/Cop Confusion: Mistaking a real police officer for a stripper dressed as one or vice versa.
  • Suggestive Collision: Two characters bump into each other and look like they're having sex.
  • That Came Out Wrong: A character says something that they realize sounds unintentionally sleazy.
  • Third-Act Misunderstanding: Someone is keeping a secret from someone else, but then genuinely develops a crush on them, then the character finds out the secret, assumes that they're faking the crush, and rejects them.
  • This Billboard Needs Some Salt: A monster eats a food-shaped object, mistaking it for food.
  • Thoroughly Mistaken Identity: Sub-trope of Delirious Misidentification, when the person is senile or insane and mistakes someone for a different specific person.
  • Totally Not a Werewolf: A character is mistaken for a mythical creature and they were using magic but weren't that creature.
  • Tragic Mistake: That one mistake that brings everything crashing down for a Tragic Hero, brought about by the character's Fatal Flaw.
  • Tragically Misguided Favor: Someone accidentally causes a lot of trouble by doing an unwarranted favour.
  • Unwanted False Faith: A normal person is accidentally mistaken for a messiah.
  • Wrong Assumption: A character believes a trope applies to them when it doesn't.
  • You Just Ruined the Shot: Someone thinks a person is in danger, but their heroics are met with a director chastising them for interfering with the movie being made.
  • Your Costume Needs Work: The real person is mistaken for a shoddy impersonator.

Examples:

Live-Action TV

  • Coupling does this a bit, too: Sally approaches Patrick's bisexual girlfriend, trying to get a confession that she "fooled around" with Jeff (when no such thing had occurred), and the girlfriend thinks Sally is hitting on her; Jeff talks about how Jane's clinginess to Steve means "he's got an unflushable", and Susan, who just met Steve in the bathroom, thinks it means something else entirely.
    • In another episode, Steve and Susan are watching a TV show which mentions the number of men who continue to masturbate when in a committed relationship. In the awkward silence that follows, Steve starts whistling, in an attempt to seem relaxed. He justifies it by saying that he felt like some music but wasn't in the mood for a whole CD. "Sometimes you want a full orchestra, and sometimes you just want a... quick whistle?" Susan tells him that she doesn't mind his whistling, as long as he doesn't get "whistled out." Later in the episode, Susan's parents come round for a visit, and while Susan is out of the room her father mentions that Susan told him that Steve's been "going solo, and Steve interprets it how you'd imagine. This leads to the classic line, "If music be the food of love, then masturbation is just a quick snack between meals." And then Susan walks back in and says, "I was just telling Dad how you've started whistling to yourself." Later in the episode, we see Steve throwing them out for an apparently out-of-line comment, which Steve starts to repeat to Susan before self-censoring the end of it: "With all that whistling, by the time Susan gets home you'll be too tired to—" Susan then finishes it for him to make it clear just how badly he misheard it: "pucker."
  • Three's Company:
    • From the episode when the main characters met the British Ventriloquist Leslie and his puppet Pamela. Because he kept Pamela a secret for certain reasons (she was kept in a large suitcase that he would not let anyone touch), several misunderstandings came out. First Pamela was mistaken by Jack as Leslie's crime partner after reading a news article on the "Duke and Duchess" (Leslie was mistaken for being the "Duke"), then she's mistaken for being Leslie's girlfriend when Jack lets Janet and Terri hear Pamela's (actually Leslie's) voice through his bedroom wall. There's a case of Mistaken for Murderer when the trio break into Leslie's apartment, and Jack opens the suitcase thinking that's where Leslie kept the stolen money in, only to pull out Pamela's hand. Cue the trio screaming in terror and fleeing the scene in the most hilarious fashion.
      • This was lampshaded in an early episode of Friends (which would later still use this trope plenty anyway):
      Chandler: Oh, I think this is the episode of Three's Company where there's some kind of misunderstanding.
      [Studio audience laughs]
      Pheobe: Well then I've already seen this one. [Turns off TV]


Alternative Title(s): Oops I Did It Again

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