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Poor Communication Kills / Real Life

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  • In 1980, a group of forwarders were kidnapped and killed by Mujaheddin militias as they were delivering a shipment through Afghanistan (during the Soviet-Afghan War). The cited reason for the incident was that the militiamen noticed the license plates on their lorries, which started with "SU", and assumed the foreigners came from the much-hated Soviet Union. Only later did it turn out that the forwarders were actually from Bonn, the capital of West Germany - "SU" actually stood for the "district of Siegburg" near Bonn.
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  • There is the Derek Bentley case, a watershed in British jurisprudence: Bentley and his partner-in-crime were holed up on the roof of a Croydon warehouse they had been in the process of burgling, surrounded by the police. One of the Constables climbed up to them, ordering them to surrender their weapons, upon which Bentley told his accomplice Christopher Craig, "Let him have it, Chris!". Which could either mean "Give him the gun, Chris!" or "blow the bastard's brains out, Chris!". Chris chose the latter and shot two Constables, one of them in the head, before being overpowered. Bentley ended up being charged for joint enterprise in the murder of a police officer and was sentenced to death, despite his real intentions still being a subject of debate, in part as he was barely literate and had an IQ of 77. The case was controversial at the time and strengthened the growing pressure to abolish the death penalty although it continued in use in Britain until 11 years later, in 1964. Disquiet continued and eventually, in 1998, Derek Bentley received a full posthumous pardon.
  • There is a (false) urban legend about Napoleon standing over a mass of prisoners. His men asked what to do, and Napoleon coughed, said something about it, and all the prisoners were killed. Apparently, the words "Ma sacrée toux!" (My damned cough!) sound a lot like "Massacrez tout!" (Kill them all!) Oops.
    • There is a similar Urban Legend about a man on death row (somewhere in All the Little Germanies), and his wife writing a pardon plea to the King. The king's response lacked a single, very crucial comma: "Ich komme nicht köpfen!" which could either be interpreted as "Ich komme, nicht köpfen!" ("I will come; don't behead him!") or "Ich komme nicht, köpfen!" ("I won't come; behead him!"). The executioner's ultimate decision is not known.
    • This seems to be a common joke in countries where it is linguistically possible. There is an almost identical story in Russia, involving the phrase, "Помиловать нельзя казнить," which, depending on where the comma is placed, either means, "Pardon [him], do not execute," or "Cannot pardon [him]. Execute."
  • A real-life example of this trope occurred during the Crimean War, during the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, immortalized in the Tennyson poem. Poor communication, mutual jealousy, and just plain incompetence among the British commanders led to the slaughter of hundreds of brave soldiers, sadly enough.
    • The top-level commander wanted the cavalry to attack the nearby guns to the south. Unfortunately, due to the topography, the cavalry commanders could not see the guns he was referring to. When asked which guns the order referred to, Captain Nolan (the man who brought the message) responded with an incredibly vague sweep of his arm, seemingly indicating the guns they could see, which lay at the end of a well-defended valley. The rest is history.
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    • Lord Raglan's actual order read as follows: "Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns – Troop Horse Artillery may accompany – French cavalry is on your left." Note the absence of specific points of reference for Lord Lucan (Raglan's cavalry commander) to follow. That said, Lucan made little effort to clarify Raglan's remarks, aside from losing his temper at Captain Nolan (prompting the above-mentioned reaction).
    • Another example from the same war took place during the Battle of the Chernaya, where the Russians had a superiority in numbers (58,000 vs. 37,000) over the Allied forces (French, Sardinians, and Ottomans). The advance forces arrived at the engagement site and Prince Gorchakov, the Russian general, sent a note to his field commanders: "Let's start this". He meant for them to start deploying their forces in preparation for the reinforcements' arrival. The commanders interpreted the note as a signal to attack immediately. The unprepared Russian forces met stiff resistance and were forced to retreat with casualties much higher than the Allies.
    • Narrowly averted during the Seven Years' War at the Battle of Minden. During the battle, the Anglo-German commander, Prince Ferdinand, issued an order to the British and Hanoverian infantry to the effect of "the brigade will advance on the beat of the drums" - in other words, wait for the signal of beating drums, then advance. The commander, Lord Waldegrave, misinterpreted the order as "Advance to the beat of drum." The band duly struck up a lively tune and the entire brigade - six regiments of British infantry and two regiments of Hanoverian guardsmen - began advancing smartly across the field towards the French centre... consisting entirely of cavalry, who charged. The Anglo-German infantry met the cavalry in line and repelled them several times, much to the astonishment of those watching, becoming one of the most celebrated feats of arms of the entire war. By rights, it should have been much, much messier.
  • The anime industry in the US and UK. Unless it pertains to them being awesome, most companies will say absolutely nothing in regards to their shows. Often, an issue that happens will hit fans square in the chops even when there was a perfectly decent amount of time for someone, like ADV, to say that they had lost the rights to something.
    • This was also one of the contributing factors to the end of the UK's Anime Central on TV.
  • It's because of several incidents of this that the aviation industry uses a standardized vocabulary, English is used even when the pilots and controllers aren't native speakers, and air traffic instructions must be repeated by pilots to ensure mutual understanding. Before the introduction of these standards, many crashes and incidents were caused by miscommunication and/or lack of communication, including the Tenerife disaster.
  • The most notable plane crash caused by miscommunication is also the deadliest in aviation history - the March 27, 1977 Tenerife airport disaster, when KLM Flight 4805, a diverted Boeing 747-200, tried to take off on a foggy runway at Los Rodeos Airport while Pan Am Flight 1736, a Boeing 747-100 named "Clipper Victor" (and the aircraft that flew the 747's inaugural commercial flight) was taxiing on it. The two planes collided, resulting in the deaths of all 234 passengers and 14 crew on the KLM, as well as 9 of the 16 crew and 326 of the 380 passengers on the Pan Am. The total number of fatalities? 583, the worst plane crash of all time! To elaborate:
    • These two planes were among several that had been diverted to Tenerife when a bomb planted by the separatist Canary Islands Independence Movement exploded at Las Palmas Airport on the island of Gran Canaria. The threat of a second bomb shut down that airport, causing incoming flights to be diverted to the much smaller Los Rodeos airport, which was not designed to handle nearly that many flights and was packed to the brim. The airport had only one runway and one major taxiway running parallel to it, with four short taxiways connecting the two. The diverted airplanes took up so much space that they were having to park on the long taxiway, making it unavailable for the purpose of taxiing. Instead, departing aircraft needed to taxi along the runway to position themselves for takeoff, a procedure known as a back-taxi or backtrack.
    • Eventually, Las Palmas reopened and planes began to clear out for the KLM and Pan Am to be able to take off. The Pan Am plane was ready to depart from Tenerife, but access to the runway was being obstructed by the KLM plane and a refueling vehicle; the KLM captain had decided to fully refuel at Los Rodeos instead of Las Palmas, apparently to save time. The Pan Am aircraft was unable to maneuver around the refueling KLM, in order to reach the runway for takeoff, due to a lack of safe clearance between the two planes, which was just 12 feet. The refueling took about 35 minutes, after which the passengers were brought back to the aircraft. The search for a missing Dutch family of four, who had not returned to the waiting KLM plane, delayed the flight even further. The delays caused by the KLM refueling meant that by the time the KLM was ready to leave, the entire airport was blanketed in fog so thick that the Pam Am crew described looking out the front windscreen and not being able to see the tarmac, making verbal communication that much more critical.
    • The KLM Boeing 747 was directed by the tower to taxi all the way down the runway, then do a 180-degree turn (called a "back-taxi" turn) to line up for takeoff. While it was doing its turn, the Pan Am Boeing 747 was directed to taxi behind the KLM, then turn off at an exit partway down the runway. It is here that several miscommunications caused the disaster:
      • The first was an unclear direction about which exit the Pan Am plane was to take. Its pilot, Victor Grubbs, was instructed to take the third exit to the taxiway. This could have referred to exit C3 or may have meant for the Pan Am to turn upon reaching the third exit from where it was when the instruction was issued, which would have meant C4 (the controller even counted off "one...two...three, third exit", when asked for a clarification, which clarified absolutely nothing). Seeing as how exit C3 would have required the pilots to take the plane through a pair of impractically tight 135 degree turns (one left, then right), they continued on to C4 (a much simpler pair of 55 degree turns), but there is still debate over which exit the controller meant.
      • Additionally, it is unclear whether the Pan Am flight crew ever positively identified exit C3 as such; it is quite possible that, due to the fog, they either never saw C3 at all, or did not recognize it as an exit, or that they overlooked one of the earlier exits and that threw their numbering off. If any of these was the case, then exit C4 would have appeared to in fact be C3 - especially for a flight crew unfamiliar with the airport and its layout.
      • When the KLM completed its turnaround, the Pan Am was still on the runway, but, due to the fog, the KLM crew could not see them. In the conversation that followed, accents, language barriers, and a lack of standardized terminology prevented either side from being clearly understood. As a result, two different meanings were drawn from the conversation; the controller believed the KLM was standing by for clearance, while the KLM pilot believed the clearance had already been given.
      • Due to a problem with the communication system, the KLM crew missed two critical messages: the controller telling them to stand by for takeoff and the Pan Am crew trying to warn them that they were still on the runway. Either message by itself would have gotten the KLM pilots to stop, but the radio system was not designed to handle multiple inputs at the same time, and because the transmissions were simultaneous, neither one of them was able to go through, with the KLM only getting a heterodyne. It was shortly thereafter that the KLM pilot decided to begin his takeoff roll, with horrific results.
      • The cause of the crash was noted by investigative agencies as the KLM's pilot decided to take off without clearance. Analysis of the black box showed that the KLM crew was not entirely sure they had clearance. The tower had instructed the plane to hold for takeoff clearance, then began giving post-takeoff flight instructions, but never actually cleared the plane to take off as the Pan Am plane had still not yet cleared the runway. Post-crash investigations suggested that the junior officers were aware to some degree that something wasn't quite right, but they were reluctant to contradict the captain (who was a highly regarded pilot and instructor, and was in fact recommended by KLM for the crash investigation until they found out he was the pilot); when they did speak up at all, their statements were not direct or forceful enough for the captain to recognize what they were trying to tell him. This has led to the development of Crew Resource Management, a management system that encourages consensus thinking over top-down responsibility, and teaches junior officers how to speak up and make themselves understood in these situations.
    • The crash investigation highlighted communication errors to the point where the entire industry was reformed. Now when controllers give instructions, pilots are required to reply by repeating the instructions given (i.e. "Taxi to runway 123 and hold", "Roger, taxiing to runway 123 and holding"). Additionally, the word takeoff is never used unless giving explicit permission to takeoff, prior to that the word departure is used.
  • The book "Airport International" closed a chapter with an incident where the pilot called for "takeoff power"—putting the engines at takeoff power (maximum thrust)—and his co-pilot interpreted it as an order to "take off power"—throttle down, decreasing thrust—and caused a stall, crashing the plane. "Fortunately, these strangers met on a simulator."
  • Avianca Flight 52 ran out of fuel while circling to land at John F. Kennedy International Airport and crashed because the JFK air traffic controllers were unaware of the flight's critical fuel status. The reason? The pilots used the word "priority" when requesting permission to land. The air traffic controllers did not recognize the word "priority" as significant, and only immediately responded to "Mayday", "pan-pan", and "emergency". As a result, the plane was put into a holding pattern much longer than it should have been, causing it to deplete its fuel reserves and crash into the woods near Cove Neck.
  • Many midair collisions are the result of communication errors:
    • This applies to the deadliest mid-air collision in aviation history, the 1996 Charkhi Dadri collision between a climbing Saudi Arabian Airlines Boeing 747 leaving Indira Gandhi International Airport, and a Kazakhstan Airlines Ilyushin Il-76 descending towards the airport. The crash was attributed to the Kazakh pilots' poor English skills which led them to descend well below their assigned altitude to that of the Saudi 747. Worse, ATC had no radar capable of measuring altitudes to warn them (their primitive system only had blips that told them the locations of the aircraft, but they had no markings with flight information).
    • The midair collision crash of PSA Flight 182 in San Diego was caused in part by a critical misinterpreted word: the copilot on an airliner reported that he thought they'd passed by a small plane already, however a burst of static made it sound to the ground controller that they were passing the plane, leading the controller to assume they had the plane in sight and knew where it was relative to them: if he'd heard the word in the past tense, he might have realized they didn't know where the plane was as his radar clearly showed it was still in front of them. The two aircraft collided and crashed into a residential section of the North Park neighborhood, killing nearly 200 people.
    • The Überlingen mid-air collision on July 1, 2002 happened when a DHL Boeing 757's tailfin cut through a Bashkirian Airlines Tupolev Tu-154 at a 90-degree angle over Überlingen, Germany, killing all 71 people on both aircraft. The cause of the crash was attributed to several factors, most of which had to do with the controller on duty, Peter Nielsen: note 
      • In an unusual case of poor communication on an unrelated matter becoming a factor, Nielsen failed to notice the conflict because he was trying to sort out a communication issue related to another flight, made worse by a malfunctioning phone system, and the main radar system was down for routine maintenance. The malfunctioning phone lines also kept air traffic controllers at another control center, who had noticed the issue, from phoning in a warning to Nielsen.
      • To further compound the matter, Nielsen was also working two workstations at the same time as the other controller who was supposed to on duty that night was resting in another room. This was against official regulations but had been a common practice for years, and management were known to turn a blind eye to it.
      • Unaware that the planes' TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) systems had activated, Nielsen ordered the Tupolev pilots to descend, in direct contradiction to the TCAS instructions. While a few countries had created their own guidelines about how to react to conflicting directions from TCAS and a human operator, no universal standard had been adopted. The Tupolev crew chose to follow Nielsen's orders and, even more critically, chose not to inform Nielsen of the conflicting TCAS order, which might have allowed Nielsen to recognize the situation and react to modify his instructions.
      • Meanwhile, the DHL crew attempted to inform Nielsen they were in a TCAS descent, another piece of information that would likely have caused Nielsen to realize his mistake with enough time to correct it. Because of the same equipment problems, they couldn't get through.
      • Nielsen inadvertently told the Tupolev pilots the incorrect position of the DHL aircraft, telling them it was at their two o'clock position (to their right) when it was actually at their ten o'clock position (to their left). It may not have mattered, as it's not entirely clear if they could have avoided the crash even if they'd been looking in the right place, but whatever slim chance they might have had was completely lost after that.
    • In fact, the type of TCAS conflict that caused the Uberlingen collision had happened before. Eighteen months before the crash, a near mid-air collision occurred near Tokyo between two Japan Airlines aircraft in January 2001. A Boeing 747 leaving Haneda Airport and a McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 heading into Narita Airport crossed paths. Both received TCAS orders. The DC-10 followed its TCAS orders and the 747 followed air traffic control orders. When the planes saw each other, the 747's crew took evasive action. How close did the two planes come to hitting? According to this picture, they came within about 35 feet of colliding and filled each other's windscreens. About 100 people on the 747 were injured by the evasive actions of their pilots, 9 seriously, while there were no injuries on the DC-10. Japanese authorities wanted the ICAO to implement changes to prevent this kind of incident from happening again. The ICAO did not investigate the Japan Airlines incident until after the Uberlingen collision. There were 677 people combined on-board the two aircraft and had the 747's pilots been too late instigating their evasive maneuvers, this would've taken the crown away from Tenerife as the deadliest aviation accident of all time.
  • Averted in the crash of Nigerian Airways 2120. There was, in fact, a significant misunderstanding between the pilots and air traffic control in the plane's final minutes, but the investigation determined that this had no effect on the outcome of the flight.
  • Before the Vietnam War French soldiers were already stationed at Vietnam with the French Government's goal being imperialism. When the United States deployed their soldiers in Vietnam meaning to push back communist influence, they did so assuming that the French would be there to support them. Turns out the French pulled out of Vietnam and failed to notify the US. The French also forgot to tell them they stocked weapons and supplies in random Vietnamese villages for French soldiers to use later. US soldiers believed the innocent villagers hoarding weapons for the French were hoarding for the Viet-Cong guerrilla fighters or were part of the Viet-Cong, and preemptively executed them. Allowing actual Viet-cong members to convince anti-communists that the US was not there to help them, and also lead to the preemptive killing of American soldiers which again leads to more Vietnamese deaths, granting the Viet-cong more anonymity.
  • Preventing this sort of situation is why modern militaries and other organizations make such a big deal about communicating in specific ways: NATO armies have a standard method to issue orders, air traffic control and pilots (and submarine and ship crews) acknowledge instructions by repeating them back, and so on.
    • It has been claimed that bad communication is the number one cause of major military disasters as seen in the films Gallipoli, Bravo Two Zero and Black Hawk Down. The Grenada invasion of 1983 was full of communication snafus but was saved due to the incompetence of the defenders.
    • Much of the butchery on the first day of the Somme was due to this: word of initial lodgements in the enemy front line with requests for urgent reinforcement prompted dispatch of said reinforcements, which is good military sense ("reinforce success"). Alas, by the time the message got through (no walkie-talkies in those days), the picture had changed and the reinforcements were massacred; the advancing barrage couldn't be called back to deal with unsuppressed machine guns; etc. etc. The tragedy of an industrial war in which communications technology lagged behind everything else. The British eventually fixed the problem by de-emphasising initiative and dash in favour of carefully rehearsed and scripted advances onto limited objectives and improvements in artillery technique, to the point where the last 100 days of the First World War was a series of unbroken victories over the Germans.
    • The War of 1812, at least for the British. Especially as the long travel period required to carry any message between the British and American governments caused the Battle of New Orleans, the largest battle of the war, to be fought two months after both sides signed an armistice. The signed copy just hadn't gotten to the British commanders or the American government yet. The entirety of the war was this in some sense. America declared war due to several reasons stemming from the Napoleonic wars, such as blockading of ports and the impressment of their sailors into the British navy. The law which had allowed the impressment of sailors had been repealed just prior to the American declaration of war, but with the travel time across the Atlantic, nobody knew one of the major reasons had been eliminated.
    • 650 British men are facing thousands of Chinese during The Korean War, on the Imjin River. They're outnumbered and surrounded on all sides. An American, Maj-Gen Robert H Soule, asked the British brigadier, Thomas Brodie: "How are the Glosters doing?" The brigadier replied: "A bit sticky, things are pretty sticky down there." The Americans didn't understand that was typical British understatement, and people still debate whether relief would've actually helped by that point.
  • The Lydian king Croesus, thought to be the richest man of his age, went to the Oracle of the Delphi to ask what would happen if he invaded Persia. After being told that he "will destroy a great empire", Croesus went ahead and launched the invasion. Things did not go well for him, and he narrowly escaped being burned alive by Cyrus the Great. Later he sent another emissary to the Oracle asking for an explanation. Her response: Croesus had destroyed a great empire - his own.
    • The assumption though is that this was deliberate poor communication on the part of the Oracle so they could claim they were correct no matter who had won.
  • Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket had disagreements over the rights and privileges of the Church. Four knights recently returned from the crusades overhead Henry saying "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" and interpreted this as a royal command. On December 29, 1170, they arrived at Canterbury and killed Becket when he refused to leave the cathedral. Henry soon after undertook public penance for his part in the murder, both because Becket was a friend (even if their friendship had been strained to the breaking point), and because his knights did murder the Archbishop of Canterbury, on what they assumed to be his orders.
  • The Japanese High Command responded to the American demand for a surrender prior to the atomic bombings using the word mokusatsu as the operative phrase. ''Mokusatsu" has a spectrum of meanings, ranging from the innocuous, "No comment," to "We are ignoring in contempt." Guess which translation got back to the Americans. This has been used by the NSA as a textbook example of never assuming what the intended meaning of an ambiguous phrase is while translating. Nevertheless, seeing as only one response (unconditional surrender) would have been acceptable anyway, it's important not to overstate this episode.
    • Another Japanese example was their fetish for compartmentalization and utter secrecy, in part to fool Allied codebreakers and in part to prevent people becoming demoralized at how bad their military situation really was. The ultimate example was the Battle of Midway; the Japanese Army was not informed for several months how bad the naval situation had become.
    • In October of 1942, a message was sent by the overconfident Japanese Army command on Guadalcanal to Admiral Yamamoto's headquarters saying that Henderson Field had been captured. In truth, their attack hadn't even started yet and would be slaughtered by the well-entrenched United States Marines on Edson's Ridge.
  • There's a reason that in the US armed forces (and possibly other English-speaking NATO allies) you will have your ass chewed for requesting that someone "repeat" their last transmission. The proper request is "say again" because when "repeat" is used as a proword it means to send another artillery or naval gunfire barrage to the previous coordinates. Fire discipline is a wonderful thing.
  • "The world wonders" - during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in WWII a part of cryptographic padding (essentially a nonsense text to throw off enemy cryptographers) caused William F. Halsey of the USN 3rd Fleet to stop pursuit of a fleeing carrier group that was used as a decoy.
    • The start of that pursuit had another example. When Halsey telegraphed a message said that "Task Force 34 will be formed" and would guard the San Bernardino Strait, other admirals assumed the Task Force would be formed right now while Halsey meant he might form it in the future. When Halsey announced he was going after the carriers, those admirals assumed Task Force 34 was still guarding the strait, when in fact it was completely open and gave the main Japanese fleet a practically clear path to the American transport ships they were supposed to protect. When the tiny American fleet left to defend it send for help, the message "Where repeat where is Task Force 34 the world wonders" was sent, which was intended as an inquiry but with the three added words sounded like biting sarcasm to Halsey. Luckily, the Japanese didn't know where Halsey's fleet was either and when the tiny US destroyer force attacked the huge Japanese fleet, the Japanese assumed they must be backed by the whole US fleet and retreated.
      • Another tragic example in that battle is that survivors weren't rescued until two days after the battle due to numerous communication errors, such as search planes giving out the wrong coordinates.
  • Ever heard of the Shiloh Baptist Church Panic? It's widely considered to be one of the most bizarre disasters in U.S. history. On September 19, 1902, the predominantly African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama was hosting a convention with Booker T. Washington as the keynote speaker and had recently moved to a new building, which featured a steep, narrow stairwell with brick walls on either side that led from the front doors to the sanctuary. During Washington's speech, the choir director and a man in the audience got in an argument over a vacant seat. Someone egged them on, yelling "Fight! Fight!" Unfortunately, the crowd — 2,000 strong — misheard it as "Fire!" They rose en masse and made a mad dash for the stairs, pushing, shoving, tripping at the top of the stairs and falling, while others fainted out of sheer fright and were trampled. Eventually, the only way out of the church was blocked by a screaming wall of people 10 feet high. 110 people died from suffocation and internal injuries, and many more were injured.
  • During World War 2 a joint Navy/Air Force operation to supply the besieged island of Malta came to grief (or nearly so) because of a misunderstanding over the distance RAF airplanes had to cover to get there after taking off from an aircraft carrier. The Royal Air Force always used statute miles and therefore thought the number was given in statute miles, but the Royal Navy had, as it always did, given the distance in nautical miles (1 nautical mile = 1.151 statute miles).
  • The San Bernardino train disaster, involving a cargo train taking a heavy load down a steep incline and going out of control, was caused by two of these.
    • First the cargo manifest wasn't filled out properly, leaving out the weight of the cargo, so a clerk did a quick visual inspection to gauge the weight. The clerk didn't know that the cargo was heavier than the coal the cars were designed for, so he filled out 2/3 full when they were actually at their full weight.
    • Second, the main engineer asked for two extra locomotives to help with braking, knowing that some of the existing engines on the front of the train had faulty brakes. However, he was never told that one of the additional rear helper engines also had faulty brakes, and the engineer on those engines never mentioned it, thinking the lead engineer was already told about the braking problem. So a massive derailment happened at Duffy Street. Then there was a gas explosion two weeks later.
  • When the Mars Climate Orbiter was built, Maryland contractors built it under the assumption NASA was using the imperial system. NASA was actually using metric, so all the calculations for the Orbiter were off - with the result that a $330 million piece of technology vanished completely once it hit Mars' atmosphere.
    • Although this is perhaps more a case of "stupidity kills", as NASA spelt out very clearly in their contract with Lockheed that metric was to be used. Lockheed were just morons.
  • Imperial/metric's been a common cause of these across many disciplines. Probably too long a list to even start, but when it happens on planes.
    • One flight across African desert was only saved by the onboard engineer who ignored the navigator's fuel calculations (where the navigator thought miles to be kilometers, which would naturally give you about two thirds the required load) and just filled full - hilarity reinforced by "complicated" nature of the TU-134's fuel gauges. Far into the flight, after several minutes of total angst in the cabin when the navigator realized his mistake, the engineer presented them with real fuel loads and commented: "Your fuel's gone, now we're flying on mine".
    • The Gimli Glider. The Air Canada Boeing 767 ran out of fuel halfway through a Montreal to Edmonton flight due to the adoption of the metric system; the pilots managed to land it like a glider at the closed Gimli RCAF base - which had to do with the pilot's experience as a skilled glider pilot. Fortunately, no one was killed or even seriously injured.
  • The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was full of poor communication, some of it intentional.
    • The company responsible for one of the most critical components of the shuttle (the O-rings that sealed the joints of the SRBs) had not tested them properly in very-low-temperature conditions. What information they had suggested that anything below about 40F would cause them to not function properly.
    • The weather on the day of the launch was 31F, with an estimated temperature of about 8F around the O-rings. The company responsible for these critical components (Morton Thiokol) stalled for hours before lying to NASA and telling them to go ahead with launch and that the parts would hold.
    • The reasoning after the fact by the engineers responsible for why they didn't do more to prevent the disaster is that they kept silent in protest of their employer's actions, knowing that the launch would inevitably fail and being unable to stop this because their employer would not risk the loss of business by telling NASA to scrub the launch. It didn't help matters that NASA put a great deal of pressure on Morton Thiokol to see the shuttle launched on time, giving them the impression that they would lose NASA's business if they didn't launch.
  • Russell Peters talks about a variant of this in one of his routines. He says that when a Filipino girl asked if he wanted to see her "susu" (breasts), he was confused because to Indians, "susu" means "pee-pee". So he tells the girl "Eww, no, flush it!", but the girl just thinks he's really kinky.
  • William the Conqueror's coronation was greeted so loudly outside Westminster Abbey that his soldiers thought a riot had erupted and proceeded to massacre everyone.
  • One of the main causes of the Russo-Japanese War was Russia not responding to Japan's requests to negotiate over Korea.
  • During the intifada, one group of Palestinian militants refused to adhere to Israel's practice of ending Daylight Saving Time early (to accommodate early morning Jewish prayers), and rigged a bomb to explode at a specified time by their West Bank clocks, still using DST. The infiltrator assigned to place the device assumed its stated detonation-time was by the Israeli clocks, so thought he had an hour longer in which to plant it than its timer allowed. The bomb was still on his person when it went off, killing no one but him.
  • A limo driver was driving a bride and her bridesmaids to a party when a fire sparked inside. The driver was completely unaware and one of the women kept screaming "Smoke! Smoke!" and "Pull over!" (she either didn't speak good English or she was too panicked to speak more clearly), causing the driver to think the woman wanted him to pull over for cigarettes. It wasn't until the woman got more frantic and hysterical that the driver then realized something was wrong. By the time he pulled over and called for help, at least 6 women, including the bride, were killed in the fire. The driver and four others survived. His estranged wife said he was on the phone with her at the time, and had turned up the music so his passengers wouldn't hear.
  • A Dutch teenager died after bungee jumping before the rope was correctly fastened. The Spanish instructor (who apparently did not speak English very well) told her "no jump", which she understood as "now, jump".
  • A woman passed out in Gothenburg, Sweden, while she was walking with her pit bull. When police and an ambulance arrived to help her, the dog acted violently and aggressively towards the potential saviors of the woman, thinking that they were going to harm her. Sadly, the situation ended with the dog getting shot in order to be able to carry the woman safely to the nearest hospital.
  • The Italian armed forces suffered greatly for this during the World Wars:
    • In World War I the Royal Italian Army was plagued by the high command's refusal to meaningfully communicate: artillery barrages meant to suppress enemy forces would be interrupted because the general commanding the sector had guessed the troops were already entering the enemy trenches, critical information on impending enemy offensives would be dismissed as false or not given to the commander in chief (who, after ignoring them the first time, had wisened up), a possibly decisive offensive was ruined by lack of communications between the different units, and, to top everything else, a general had guessed the incoming Austro-Hungarian offensive of Caporetto and prepared an artillery trap with orders to not fire until he gave the order only to find out that he had no radio (the enemy artillery had interrupted his phone lines), the usual mist blocked light signals, and the gunners couldn't hear his acoustic signals over the noise of the battle (Caporetto was a Curb-Stomp Battle in Austro-Hungarian favour, if you were wondering).
    • Between the wars the government, trying to quell the Interservice Rivalry between the Royal Italian Navy and the Royal Italian Air Force, enforced various procedures, including a rather complex one for air support: whenever a Navy unit or squadron needed support they would have to ask for it to Supermarina (the Navy supreme command) in Rome, that would have to ask for it to Superaereo (the Air Force supreme command), that would then select the closest airport and send the planes. The planes invariably arrived late and often attacked Italian ships because they weren't where they were supposed to be anymore and thus mistook them for enemy ships. Needless to say, the rivalry grew worse.
      • Subverted for the Royal Italian Army: whenever deployed they ended up working with the Germans, who had the forces in every theatre integrated under a single local command, so they could ask for support directly to the closest Royal Italian Air Force or Luftwaffe base.
  • The 1914 Newfoundland Sealing Disaster. The captain of the SS Newfoundland told 132 of his men to go and hunt with the crew of the SS Stephano and then spend the night on that ship. But the Stephano's captain told them to return to the Newfoundland when they were finished hunting. The ships didn't have radios (widely considered to be too expensive at the time), so the Newfoundland captain didn't know about this instruction. The sailors ended up stranded on the ice for 48 hours in a terrible winter storm and 78 of them died. They were only rescued because the Newfoundland captain happened to see them with his binoculars while surveying the ice floes. No one had been looking for them because each captain assumed the men were safe on the other ship.
  • The US Navy's response to the sinking of USS Indianapolis during the Second World War. Indianapolis transmitted a distress call before she went down, which was received by three stations, but none of them acted on it. Worst, the plotters in the Philippines responsible for keeping track of the ships marked the ships' positions based on predictions, not actual reports, and when the ship failed to arrive on schedule, no one bothered to investigate due to miscommunication. As a result, it took three and a half days before anyone realized the ship was missing.
  • Ship-based Buccaneer Broadcaster Radio Caroline managed to ride out the Great Storm of October 1987 but its overlarge 250-foot antenna mast suffered some damage. An engineer was scheduled to inspect the mast but didn't make it out to the ship because the sea was still too rough. Those on land assumed the engineer had visited the ship and declared the mast sound, while those on the ship assumed his visit was delayed. (Just to clarify, the ship couldn't simply radio its shore personnel because pirate radio ships are banned from non-emergency ship-to-shore communications.) Next time a big storm blew up a few weeks later the mast collapsed and had to be cut loose to avoid sinking the ship. The station eventually built a smaller antenna system, but the signal was never as strong again. What was more, without the big mast to counterweight its ballast the ship rolled more and was reportedly much less comfortable to work on.
  • There are (Possibly exaggerated or made up) historical records about a battle during the Austro-Turkish war that took place in Karansebes. The details are too many to describe in this example, but the summarized version is that the inability of the soldiers to understand the language of their superiors led to one of the most catastrophic and tragic friendly fire events in military history, which resulted in the almost complete annihilation of the Austrian army stationed there. This is a clear example of how poor communication can spell the doom of entire armies.
  • The sinking of the RMS Titanic is filled with this. There are many, many points in which better communication between various parties (Between ships, between captain and crew, between crew and passengers, etc.) could have greatly lessened, even outright prevented, the tragedy.
  • Crowd control in large public events, such as concerts or sports events, can be seen as a form of communication between the event organizers and the public. Failure at this has resulted in crowd disasters, mostly caused by compressive asphyxia. An example is the 1979 The Who concert disaster, where 11 people died because the crowd misinterpreted a soundcheck for the start of the show and rushed to the hall entrance, packing against locked doors, causing 11 people to be asphyxiated to death. Many such disasters (such as the infamous Hillsborough disaster, which caused the death of 96 people) are caused by poor crowd control, often caused by poor communication within the organizers, and between the organizers and the public.
  • The Honda Point disaster of 1923, where seven US Navy destroyers ran aground off the coast of California during maneuvers due to bad weather, lack of radio communications between the ships, and a miscalculation of their positions. Besides the lost ships, 23 sailors died in the incident. It was the largest peacetime loss in the history of the American navy.
  • On 9/11, a number of emergency workers were killed at the World Trade Center as the result of communication breakdowns.
    • In particular, it's noted that 343 firefighters from the FDNY were killed, more than five times the number of police officers killed (37 from the Port Authority, 23 from the NYPD). Many off-duty personnel self-dispatched to the towers and many from the FDNY, PAPD, and NYPD went in without any sort of radios or first checking in at the various command centers (even if a cache of radios were brought to the scene to hand out, the scale of this incident would be likely to overrun the number of radios in the cache). Problems with radio communication caused a number of commanders to lose contact with many of their men who went into the towers; those firefighters were unable to hear evacuation orders and thus were killed when the towers fell. There was also no communication with the NYPD, who had helicopters on hand.
    • The police helicopters were unable to communicate with Fire Department units in order to warn them of the towers' imminent collapse. It was concluded by the 9/11 Commission that if proper communication had been in effect, the helicopter may have been able to offer several minutes warning, enough to get some people from the lower floors outside. This warning of imminent collapse went out over at least one police radio channel but there is nothing showing it was relayed to other people or channels. The FDNY operated at least two communications vans, but while the primary van was equipped to talk to NYPD helicopters but the backup van (which had no NYPD helicopter capability) was the one that was brought to the World Trade Center that morning.
    • Communication breakdowns also happened in other areas. For instance, after Flight 11 struck the North Tower, the dispatchers in the 911 call center told callers from the World Trade Center to remain in place and wait for instructions from firefighters and police officers. This was the plan for managing a fire incident in the building and the 911 center staff were following the plan. This was partly countered by public safety workers going floor-by-floor and telling people to evacuate. The 9/11 Commission's investigation concluded that the emergency call dispatchers were just overrun by call volumes that had never been seen before. Adding to the confusion, radio coverage problems, radio traffic blocking, and building system problems occurred inside the burning towers. But the majority of the equipment worked as designed and users made the best of what was available to them.
    • The radio systems used at the site were found by the 9/11 Commission to be mostly effective in that users were able to communicate with one another. The 2002 video documentary 9/11 by the brothers Gedeon and Jules Naudet (who also filmed some of the only footage of Flight 11's impact with the North Tower) showed handheld radios functioning normally and users communicating over radios from the lobby command post in the North Tower.
  • In the past, scientists believed that bacteria existed solely as an individual, with no communication taking place between bacterial cells. Researchers have discovered that this isn't actually the case; bacteria communicate extensively, not only with members of the same species but with different species as well. This discovery has spurred work into ways to break down the paths of communication between pathogenic microbes, with hopes that a new antibiotic can be created. If it is successful, pathogens that have entered your body will be unable to mount an attack against you, and can't make you sick—so poor communication will quite literally thwart all of their plans.
  • The Bethnal Green Tube Station disaster. It was the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War, with 173 people dying and many more injured. As the air raid siren blared at 8:17pm on a March evening in 1943, hundreds of people made their way to the tube station, which was doubling as a shelter. Suddenly, a bunch of rockets from an experimental new weapon fired at nearby Victoria Park, everyone began to surge forward in panic. A lady carrying a child slipped near the bottom, allowing others to literally pile on top of each other. Rescue services found it practically impossible to help, and most of the 173 people who were asphyxiated or crushed to death were women and children. All of this happened because the Ministry of Defence had 'forgotten' to remind the people of London about the testing. And to make it worse, they did everything to bury the story.
  • The loss of the HMS Victoria in collision with another ship was caused by vague orders from Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon, along with his subordinate officers' failure to seek clarification of those orders, because they feared doing so would make them look incompetent or appear to be rudely questioning their Admiral's judgement.note  In this case, his judgement should have been questioned, as he appeared to mistake the turning circle of his ships with their turning radius, and thus gave them only half as much space needed to complete their turn. Tryon's system of issuing commands (in the days before wireless telegraphs, ships relied on flags or Morse lamps) allowed for complex instructions to be issued with only a few simple signals, but required individual captains to use their own initiative, which allowed the possibility of captains interpreting the orders differently from Tryon and from each other.note  The end result: The HMS Camperdown rammed the side of the Victoria, causing the latter ship to sink in less than fifteen minutes, killing 358 of her crew, including Admiral Tryon. Perhaps the worst thing about the whole affair was that it happened during a fancy maneuver Tryon was executing to show off what a great Admiral he was. There is some evidence that Tryon was suffering from a cancerous brain tumor and that this, rather than mere arrogance and mathematical error, was what led to the disaster. This might also be why it didn't occur to Tryon to order Camperdown to remain embedded in Victoria's hull until after everyone had abandoned ship; when the former disengaged, hundreds of tons of water rushed into Victoria's hull and the ship capsized and half of the crew (including Admiral Tryon) were lost.
  • Pope Benedict XVI had quite a good grasp of Polish and he liked to show it off in front of Polish crowds in order to emphasize his respect towards his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who was Polish. His pronunciation, however, left something to be desired and it became painfully apparent in the famous greeting he once used: "Pozdrawiam was czule" which can be roughly translated into "I kindly salute you", however the way he said it made it sound more like "Pozdrawiam was, ciule" which would mean "I salute you, dumbasses". Needless to say, the slip made quite a career on the Polish internet.
  • In 1995, a team of Norwegian and American scientists launched a sounding rocket over Svalbard to study aurora borealis. However, a Russian radar station detected the high-altitude projectile, which was misinterpreted as a submarine-launched Trident missile, and therefore seen as a likely precursor to a large-scale nuclear attack from the US (as the high atmosphere EMP detonation would first blind radar and other electronics). While scientists had notified Russia and twenty-nine other countries beforehand of their intent to launch the rocket, for some reason the information never got to the Russian radar technicians. The news soon reached then Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who activated his keys to the "nuclear briefcase" (the only time in history this has ever happened), and Russian submarine commanders were prepared for nuclear retaliation. Yeltsin then had ten minutes (the time it would take for a Trident missile reach Russia) to decide whether to fire back at the US and fortunately, in this time frame, it was determined the rocket was not a threat. So a full-scale nuclear war was almost started over a misunderstanding stemming from a lack of communication.
  • The tragic end to 1993 Branch Davidian compound incident in Waco, Texas was due to this trope. During the standoff, ATF and FBI had set up microphones in order to overhear those inside. On the day of the fated disaster, the order was made to break down certain walls and flood the compound with tear gas. With so much ambient noise going around from the machines, no one could hear that, as they were doing this, those inside were dousing the place with gasoline and hay, intending on never being taken alive. Being unable to hear this until the noise was scrubbed some time later meant that many men, women, and children lost their lives.
  • This trope, along with Right Hand vs. Left Hand, ended up being a major factor in Sega's downfall in the late '90s. Sega's Japanese and American branches had a very sour relationship with one another, in no small part thanks to Sega of America's greater success with the Sega Genesis in their country than what Sega of Japan could achieve in their own, leading to the two divisions growing more and more distant as the fourth generation dragged on. Ultimately, this culminated in the massive fiasco that was the Sega 32X and the Sega Saturn: both Sega of Japan and Sega of America were designing their own systems for the 32-bit age of gaming, with the Saturn being SoJ's project and the 32X being SoA's. However, neither division knew about the other's ambitions, and Sega of Japan was adamant about pushing the Saturn worldwide. So, once the 32X did see a release, Sega of Japan had already finished work on the Saturn and forced their American branch to release the system as soon as possible. The 32X failed to catch on thanks to the impending arrival of the Saturn, and the Saturn's rushed release date in the west (to the point where it came out the very day it was shown off at E3 1995) ended up angering developers and retailers who were anticipating a September release (for reference, the actual release ended up being in May), playing a huge role (among other factors) in the Saturn's downfall in the west. The failings of both the 32X and the Saturn, combined with the shortcomings of the Sega CD, ended up culminating in a gigantic debt that Sega wouldn't have been able to pay off unless the Sega Dreamcast sold unrealistically well, leading to Sega's ultimate decision to drop out of the console race altogether.
  • One such incident caused the sinking of the Viribus Unitis at the end of World War I: after the defeat at Vittorio Veneto triggered the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, emperor Karl, as part of his ultimately doomed attempt to salvage the Empire in some form, handed the fleet, based in Pula, to the newly-formed State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in the hope to reacquire it once the war had ended, but both the Austro-Hungarian government nor the National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs neglected to warn the Entente until late on October 31, preferring instead to keep up the near-paranoid wartime surveillance caused by the Italians incursions in the military harbors. Thus the Italians couldn't recall the incursion that, using the first operative manned torpedo, breached the harbor surveillance on November 1 and placed a limpet mine on the ship, the incursors learning they had attacked a technically neutral target only after having been captured. The ship was sunk and, due a defect on the fuse causing the fleet commander the incursors had lied, 400 sailors, including the commander, died due to the explosion.
  • In a more humorous and less lethal example of the trope, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover returned a memo submitted to him with a handwritten notation to 'watch the borders'. Afraid to admit their ignorance, nobody asked Hoover what he meant, and instead various subordinates spent several days trying to figure out what was going on at the border (and which border, for that matter) that they needed to be aware of. After looking at the memo again, someone finally realized that Hoover's note was actually telling the clerk who typed the memo that he needed to pay attention to how the margins were set.
  • The 1981 Hyatt Regency walkway collapse in Kansas City, Missouri, was the result of a steel fabricator making changes to the design that were easier to manufacture but doubling the load on the structure, assuming that the engineering firm that designed it would make the calculations which would have revealed that the design was dangerously flawed, but the firm didn't and approved the changes anyway. The walkway failed, killing 114 people and injuring 216, the country's worst structural failure until 9/11. The engineer who approved the changes lost his license.
  • The Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 is a large-scale example of this. The battle took place on January 8th, 1815, a full 18 days after America and Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war. However, news of the treaty, which had been signed in the Netherlands, had not yet reached the North American continent, and so the American and British armies went into battle completely unaware they were fighting a war that was already over. As a result, both sides lost a combined total of 2,300 casualties in a battle that should have never taken place.


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