According to many anthropologists, one of the turning points in human development was a growing ability to communicate. In fiction, one of the turning points in dramatic development is the inability to communicate.
In many stories, particularly those that rely on Dramatic or Tragic Irony, miscommunication and misunderstanding can often play a role in setting off or allowing bad things to happen. This often happens in mystery stories, such as where a murderer kills an innocent victim due to a misunderstanding, as well as in Tragedies, where poor communication is often the result of the characters' own Fatal Flaws, which lead them to commit Tragic Mistakes that pave the way for everything to go pear-shaped. This is also an all-too-common occurrence in Real Life, where many real life tragedies could have been avoided had the right people shared information that could have prevented them, but didn't for all kinds of reasons.
In order for this trope to work, the misunderstanding or miscommunication needs to have a reason to occur, best borne out of the natural characterization of the characters involved. A character who has a hard time trusting someone, for example, is more likely to dismiss that someone's explanation of what's going on out of hand than to hear the person out. Someone who is naturally shy or has No Social Skills may also have trouble getting their point across. A Horrible Judge of Character may implicitly trust a villain who wants nothing but bad things for him, and tend not to believe those who tell him of the villain's evil intentions. A Ditherer may refuse to speak up on something because it would mean having to make a choice one way or the other.
Basically, the miscommunication or misunderstanding should be borne out of flaws and behaviors that a character has had from the start rather than something that happened because the author needed a story to go a certain way and derailed the characters involved, making them hold the Idiot Ball. Authors who pull this trope badly run the risk of straining the audience's Willing Suspension of Disbelief.
Though similar, this trope does not include things like Selective Obliviousness, You're Just Jealous, or Sarcastic Confession, as those are failures to listen rather than speak (though listening is also a vital part of good communication).
NOTE: though the trope name includes "kills", no death has to happen. It's a pun: "poor communication skills" and "poor communication kills" — death does sometimes happen as a result of poor communication.
Contrast: Just Eat Gilligan, Amnesia Danger. See Facial Dialogue for those times in which a character seems unable to communicate, but actually can get entire encyclopedias of information across with just body language and a twist of the eyebrow.
This is a trope rife with major plot points by necessity. Spoilers shall be unmarked.
- Abilene Paradox: Doing something that you don't want to do because you think everyone else wants to do it.
- Angrish: A character is too angry to get his point across coherently.
- Be as Unhelpful as Possible: A character goes out of their way to not give someone useful information, usually due to lack of trust.
- Calling Me a Logarithm: A character misunderstands an unfamiliar word as an insult.
- Cannot Spit It Out: The character purposefully keeps quiet out of conflicted feelings.
- Cannot Tell a Joke: A character's attempts to be humorous just leaves their audience bemused, bothered and bewildered.
- Cassandra Truth: A character who is never believed because her claims are seen as insane.
- Cassandra Did It: When she's proven right, sometimes, everyone will just assume she did it.
- Cell Phones Are Useless: characters are unable to communicate by phone due to a plot-convenient malfunction, such as a lack of signal or a flat battery.
- Contagious Cassandra Truth: If the "Cassandra" convinces someone else they'll have exactly the same problem convincing anyone themselves.
- Conveniently Interrupted Document: Parts of a Fictional Document are redacted or otherwise rendered illegible, or a character is interrupted in the course of reading them, preventing the character from finding out what they need to know.
- Corrupted Data: The message cannot be read on arrival
- "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: When it's acknowledged In-Universe that this trope happened.
- Crying Wolf: The dumbass has lied to them before, so they think he's lying again even when he's telling the truth.
- Cryptically Unhelpful Answer: The answers to questions are cryptic. As well as unhelpful.
- Cryptic Conversation: Being mysterious for the sake of being vague, this rarely helps the heroes get anywhere or stop the villains.
- Cue Card Pause: An unfortunately timed pause completely changes the meaning of a sentence.
- Culture Clash: Each character is quite certain that the other understands what is meant.
- Digging Yourself Deeper: How most people get tongue tied into being a Cassandra Truth.
- Divided We Fall: Your
friendsallies regard you as a greater threat than their (and your) enemies.
- Does Not Know How to Say "Thanks": When a character tries to express his gratitude to someone but has no idea how to go about it.
- The End Is Nigh: No-one believes those crazy guys with sandwich boards anyway.
- Friend or Foe: You can't tell who to trust.
- Headbutting Heroes: You and another hero do NOT get along.
- Ignored Confession: If someone is impaired in any way, whatever revelation they say will be ignored. Even if it seems perfectly logical that it would be so.
- Ignored Expert: A modern version of Cassandra, who has found irrefutable empirically acquired proof of doom that everyone refuses to believe.
- Interrupted Cooldown Hug: Any time a non-violent solution against a nigh-unstoppable force seems likely, someone will shoot at it.
- It Seemed Trivial: Someone keeps his mouth shut about a vital fact because he doesn't know how important that fact actually is.
- Let's You and Him Fight: Why any two Super Heroes or teams fight in comic books. At least it usually gets sorted out fairly quickly once someone asks Why Isn't It Attacking?
- Locked Out of the Loop: Keeping vital information from the hero, either for valid reasons or "just because". Rarely ends amicably.
- Lost in Transmission: You are getting some vital information when suddenly, right as you are being told the key ingredient, the phone cuts out. Or the radio falls into static, or the computer has a psychotic break from reality. In any case, you are now standing there with a green wire in one hand, a red wire in the other, and no idea which one you were supposed to cut.
- Love You and Everybody: A character confesses platonic love for something, and is misunderstood to mean romantic love.
- Mathematician's Answer: You ask someone a question, and the answer they give you is completely correct and completely useless.
- Metaphorically True: Telling the recipient something the speaker knows is not true, or at least mostly not true (and is likely very aware that the listener will take it the wrong way), but considers it justified as being true.
- Mistaken Confession: A character confesses to something they weren't being asked about.
- Moment Killer: A character who wants to get their point across is interrupted by another character.
- Mondegreen: A character mishears the words of another.
- Never Give the Captain a Straight Answer: "Engineering, report!" "You'd better come down here and see this... and bring a Red Shirt with you."
- Non-Answer: A response that superficially resembles an answer, but when looked at more closely, is not one at all.
- Nonverbal Miscommunication: When words are out of the mix, things tend to get worse. If only someone created a language based on making signs... still they'd find a way to mess it up.
- Not Helping Your Case: The character falls under suspicion, and reacts in a way that makes him look even more suspicious.
- No Listening Skills: Trying to tell this character anything is a fruitless endeavour.
- No Longer with Us: Poor word choice causes one character to assume that another is dead.
- No Time to Explain: An excuse for several of the following; considering how time works in movies, pretty much a non-excuse.
- Not Now, Kiddo: Silencing away children or allies when they have important news.
- Not-So-Imaginary Friend: This poor soul can't expose the Devil in Plain Sight. How infuriating!
- One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Two characters have a conversation, but each party is actually addressing a different topic than the other without realizing it for some time, if ever.
- One Side of the Story: The result of several of these.
- Out-of-Context Eavesdropping: Overhearing only part of an important conversation and leaping to the wrong conclusion.
- Rage Against the Mentor: The result of heroes getting fed up with abstruse and cryptic mentors and allies.
- Remember That You Trust Me: Some loners never let the Aesop stick permanently.
- Rhetorical Request Blunder: A frustrated person expresses a wish they wouldn't really want to come true, but someone close to them takes it literally and acts on it.
- Right Hand vs. Left Hand: What happens when two groups who should be allies fight, simply because no one bothers to find out which side they're all on!
- Self Offense: A character detects someone approaching and, thinking it's a bad guy, attacks. Of course, it turns out they just attacked their ally.
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: When Smart people Cannot Spit It Out because their language is too elevated.
- Stopped Reading Too Soon: A character misses vital information stopping mid-paragraph.
- That Came Out Wrong: When someone utters a perfectly innocent remark, only for it it to sound like something smutty.
- Third-Act Misunderstanding: A result of some of these, usually from an initial lie being revealed.
- Tongue-Tied: A character physically cannot tell anyone something important that will solve their problems easily because of some kind of magic or powers.
- Tragically Misguided Favor: When you think you did something good for a person, but it turns out to be the worst thing that could happen.
- Two Rights Make a Wrong: Two groups each put a plan into action without telling the other, with the result that neither is successful.
- You Didn't Ask: Not sharing important information unless specifically asked to.
- You Have to Believe Me!: Very often in the disaster and horror genre, anyone who learns of the impending disaster in time to stop it loses the ability to not talk like a homeless schizophrenic.
- You Know What You Did: A soap opera staple, the result of a loved one thinking you're cheating because of One Side of the Story. Worst part is the poor sap doesn't know what he did!
- You Make Me Sic: A character writes something to another... but the only response they get is that their spelling needs work.
- Anime & Manga
- Comic Books
- Fan Works
- Live-Action Films
- Live-Action TV
- Video Games
- Web Original
- Western Animation
- Real Life
- This Indian ad for the Suzuki Samurai bike shows a man who runs into a Japanese man next to a Suzuki Samurai bike. The first man asks the Japanese man several questions about the bike, to which he keeps replying with "no problem". The first man then asks if he can ride the bike, to which the Japanese man again replies with "no problem", and the first man hops on the bike and starts riding. Turns out the bike belongs to another civilian, and the Japanese man appears to be only able to say "no problem" in English.
- Narrowly averted in Billy Burmingham's comedy album Still the 12th Man:
Richie Benaud: Alright Security, take them out.
Security: With pleasure, Mr. Benaud. (cocks gun)
Richie Benaud: Not that kind of "take them out", Security! Take them out of the building!
- In 9 Chickweed Lane, Official Couple Amos and Edda broke up mostly because she wouldn't tell him what was upsetting her (his dreamy ramblings about the concert violinist they'd watched) and it never occurred to him A) to ask what was wrong or B) the answer might be him. They do reunite... without ever actually resolving the issue that split them up. This has become a running theme in Edda and Amos' relationship: Edda reacting to an emotional moment by freaking out and bolting, then cluing Amos in long after the fact (and then only when a third party points out the inappropriateness of her actions).
- In The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, Melody is never told why she's not to go beyond the seawall. This becomes extremely problematic once Melody finds her grandfather's gift to her. She's also never told that Morgana is dangerous, and this allows the witch to manipulate Melody very easily.
- Jack from Rise of the Guardians is guilty about this halfway through. After the other Guardians think he betrayed them, all he would have had to say was "I found Pitch's lair, and the tooth fairies." Instead, he just stutters and mumbles, and doesn't defend himself. The circumstances might have stopped it from being a get out of jail free card, but it would have helped.
- Strange Magic: If the Bog King had let the Sugar Plum Fairy explain why the love potion didn't work when he tried to use it on the girl he was in love with, he and everyone else would probably have been much happier for it.
- Wreck-It Ralph: A lack of communication is the catalyst for the entire plot of the movie. Fix-It Felix, the protagonist of the game, is a good guy who genuinely tries to be courteous to Ralph. However, he's unable to be an effective mediator between Ralph and the Jerkass NPCs of their game, which is what causes the confrontation that leads to Ralph leaving the game. Also, Felix simply has no frame of reference for how horrible Ralph feels. This means that, since Ralph never tries to communicate his feelings to either Felix or anyone else in their game, he has no way of knowing that Ralph isn't happy. Even the fact that Ralph is homeless can be blamed on a lack of communication. If he had asked, or even implied, Felix would have certainly taken the thirty seconds out of his day to give Ralph a house. He never did, because he legitimately thought that Ralph was happy where he was.
- Anna gets struck in the head with Elsa's ice magic, so the sisters are separated for thirteen years to keep Anna from getting harmed again. Due to Anna's memories of the incident getting erased, she has no idea why Elsa shuts her out. A lot of the film's conflict (especially regarding Elsa's glove and the major argument between the two sisters over Anna's impromptu engagement to Hans) might have been avoided if Elsa or their parents had just told Anna about Elsa's powers when they felt she was old enough. One gets the idea that Elsa was ordered specifically not to tell her, and it seems to be suggested that had they not been killed prematurely, they may have had a point in time where they were going to tell Anna something along the lines of "we had to isolate you from Elsa because she has this ability to make ice that she is unable to control".
- The trolls have no idea how to help Elsa gain control of her powers only that she shouldn't let fear control her. Ironically, they are coincidentally love experts, which is exactly what helps Elsa gain control of her powers.
- The entire immediate conflict of Coco happens because of Miguel's mistaken belief of the identity of his great-great-grandfather.
- The Lego Movie 2 The Second Part goes about this in a rather silly way. The Good All Along "villains" outright tell the protagonists what they plan to do, but the protagonists are under the impression that they're lying. It doesn't help that the villains used to run on Blue and Orange Morality (being "controlled" by a younger sister who was once a toddler), which means that the protagonists tend to shoot first whenever it comes to an actual fight and then mistake defensiveness as aggression. Consequently, genuine change of hearts get mistaken as brainwashing, and a genuine Sugar Bowl is interpreted as a Crapsaccharine World. This gets lampshaded pretty hard later on.
- Used quite Anviliciously in the song "One Tin Soldier". In it a town has a "treasure" hidden under a mountain, which a valley kingdom covets. They invade, kill everyone, and find the "treasure" is just a plaque which says "Peace on Earth". Worse, when they first demand it the mountain people make a vague offer to share their treasure with their "brothers" instead of just telling them the truth.
- Steven Curtis Chapman covered this topic in "Still Called Today," which stresses the importance of making the wrong things right before it's too late.
- Then there's Exalted, in which Lytek, God of Exaltation, who's known for a very long time about the Great Curse, has utterly failed to tell anyone else about this for 2000+ years. By this point, if he does tell anyone, it's likely he'll be mined for starmetal.
- One of the Fluff asides in Reign involves an instance of Nonverbal Miscommunication that rises to this level — the mercenary commander had a troop of mixed nationality that each knew one of three different sets of military hand signals; he'd only bothered to check that they all knew hand signals, not that they all knew the same ones. His signal to "hold up" was variously interpreted correctly, as an order to attack, or as an order to retreat, and they were routed in the chaos resulting.
- In Warhammer, the Slaans - the mage-priests of the Lizardmen - sleep most of the time, and when they wake up, they speak in very short sentences without any context. As a result, unpleasant things have happened. When the High Elves arrived in Lustria, they were brought before a Slaan who said, "They should not be here". His Saurus guards read this as "Destroy all High Elves" and killed them. Whether he actually meant "Send them home" will never be known.
- Warhammer 40,000
- Damn it, Emperor. Do you have any idea how much trouble you would have saved if you were only able to occasionally explain stuff to your kids? The Horus Heresy, for one. Simply adding "I have fragile crap under construction down there" to his sorcery prohibition would prevent Magnus from acting like a moron — between a working webway, alive and loyal Thousand Sons and the fact that most of humanity's knowledge of Warp is a handful of crumbs from Magnus's table, the setback could be minimized even if Horus Heresy happened anyway.
- In Rocket Age Ganymedians didn't realise that human prospectors couldn't survive being separated from their organs, so their first attempts at taking prisoners went badly.
- Gilbert and Sullivan were also fond of this trope, but they actually hang a lampshade on it in the Act I finale of The Mikado, when Katisha tries to tell the people of Titipu that Nanki Poo is the son of the Mikado, only to have the chorus interrupt her every time she opens her mouth.
- William Shakespeare seemed to be fond of this trope.
- Romeo and Juliet sees Juliet faking her own death, and the message to Romeo explaining the situation never reaches him, causing Romeo to kill Paris and commit suicide. Upon discovering this just moments after Romeo dies, Juliet also kills herself.
- Discussed in Bells Are Ringing, where answering service girl Ella tries to explain to a policeman that "my job is to get messages to people on time" and imagines herself at "Veronaphone" passing Juliet's message on to Romeo.
"See what I could have done? Maybe I'm right! Maybe I'm wrong! But if I'd got that message through on time, I'm telling you—THOSE TWO KIDS WOULD BE ALIVE TODAY!"
- Othello was easily swayed by Manipulative Bastard Iago to believe his wife had been cheating on him and kills her. Only when it is too late does he realize that if he had bothered to verify the truth with anyone other than Iago, the stories wouldn't have matched up. Emilia at least was smart enough to figure out what was going on.
- In The Glass Menagerie, Tom doesn't tell Jim that the dinner he invited Jim to serves the purpose of introducing Jim as a suitor to Tom's sister, Laura. Jim is engaged to be married.
- In Sweeney Todd, Mrs. Lovett deliberately invokes this trope when she remarks that Sweeney's wife, Lucy, poisoned herself after Judge Turpin sent Sweeney away on a trumped-up charge and then brutally raped her. While Lucy did in fact poison herself, she didn't die—instead, she lost her mind and became the homeless, taunting Beggar Woman. Even at the very beginning of the musical, the Beggar Woman seems to recognize Sweeney ("Hey, don't I know you, mister?"), and had Sweeney taken some time to speak with her—or even looked more closely at her—he might have realized who she was and kept a lot of innocent people, and Lucy herself, from dying.
- In Wicked, the entire subplot involving Nessarose, Elphaba's younger sister, centers on this. In the first act, Glinda tries to stop Boq, a Munchkin hopelessly in love with her, from getting on her nerves by pairing him with Nessa. Boq's too much of a Nice Guy to tell Nessa what's really going on (although he does try), and Nessa, who's in a wheelchair and has never been shown any affection from the opposite sex, immediately decides that they're meant to be together. This leads to all sorts of disasters, including Nessa becoming the Wicked Witch of the East (she takes over leadership of Munchkinland after her father, the governor, dies and strips the Munchkins of their rights to keep Boq close to her) and Boq becoming the Tin Man when she screws up a spell designed to make him fall in love against his will. Heck, the whole situation indirectly brings Dorothy to Oz when Glinda (who's angry at her fiancee for leaving her for Elphaba) tells the Wizard and Madame Morrible that the witch's one weakness is her sister.
- The above "fiancee" situation is another example. Fiyero is initially a Brainless Beauty and thus a perfect match for Glinda, but it isn't long before his more sensitive, activist side begins to emerge. He never clearly tells Glinda that he isn't the same party animal that he used to be, and as a result, she doesn't (or wills herself not to) see that he's no longer in love with her.
- Ace Attorney has this problem a lot. Vague letters or notes with no clear addressee on them are the most common culprits, although the entire backstory of "Bridge to the Turnabout" could have been solved by good communication without anyone dying. The last one is tragically lampshaded by Godot, who points out that the whole situation would never have happened if he had simply told Phoenix what was going on instead of trying to redeem himself.
- Actually, the lampshading is wrong as Godot could've prevented the entire thing from happening had the letter, which led to the entire events of the case, been burned when Godot had first obtained it!
- In Shion's route for Star Struck Love, Kujo never explains to the heroine the reason why she should stay away from Shion. This leads to her believing that he's a terrible person and Shion locking her in a motel room.
- Phantom of Inferno. The whole problem with Cal in Act 3 could have been completely averted if Reiji had just told her how happy he was to see that she was still alive instead of keeping it in monologue and being defensive and confrontational at every given opportunity for no particular reason. Cal even prompts Reiji to tell his side of the story several times in hopes that he'll give her an excuse to back down.
- As with the anime, School Days has this down to an art form. Love triangle aside, a large portion of the conflict comes from Makoto never telling anyone other than Sekai that he and Kotonoha are dating.