The Biggest Problem in Communication Is the Illusion That It Has Taken Place

George Bernard Shaw? William H. Whyte? Pierre Martineau? Joseph Coffman? Anonymous?

illusion10Dear Quote Investigator: I am copy editing a book, and the author would like to include an insightful remark about communication. Here are four versions:

1) The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

2) The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.

3) The most serious danger in communication is the illusion of having achieved it.

4) The great enemy of communication is the illusion of it.

The first expression is usually attributed to the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw, but the citations I have seen are unconvincing. I do not wish to reference a business book published in 2000 to support an ascription to Shaw. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that George Bernard Shaw who died in 1950 made this statement. The saying has been linked to Shaw only in very recent decades.

The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in an article titled “Is Anybody Listening?” by William H. Whyte which was published in “Fortune” magazine in 1950. Whyte was a journalist and a best-selling author who wrote about organizations and public spaces. His instructional “Fortune” article was designed to encourage improved communication within the business domain: 1

LET US RECAPITULATE A BIT: The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it. We have talked enough; but we have not listened. And by not listening we have failed to concede the immense complexity of our society–and thus the great gaps between ourselves and those with whom we seek understanding.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1957 “Motivation in Advertising” was authored by Pierre Martineau who was the Director of Research and Marketing at the Chicago Tribune. The first sentence of the first chapter exactly matched the statement made by Whyte. No attribution was listed, but the words were enclosed in quotation marks signaling that Martineau was repeating an existing adage: 2

“The great enemy of communication is the illusion of it.” Human beings have the habit of talking and writing too much without conveying any meaning. Nowhere is this more true than in advertising, which too often ends up as the communication from one set of professionals to another set of professionals, not to the mass audience they are supposed to be reaching.

In 1960 a journal called “Public Health Reports” reported on a conference held at the New York Academy of Medicine. A speaker employed an instance of the saying and credited someone named Joseph Coffman: 3

Quoting the observation of Joseph Coffman of Holyoke, Mass., that “the greatest barrier to communication is the illusion that it has been achieved,” Dr. Galdston stated the goals for the conference…

In 1963 a textbook titled “The Nature of Public Relations” was released by John E. Marston who was an Assistant Dean in the College of Communication Arts at Michigan State University. Marston included a variant of the expression tailored to public relations: 4

One of the most serious dangers in public relations communication is the illusion of having achieved it when in fact there has been no communication at all—only a one-way outpouring. A mass media approach is generally noticed only by those who agree with it; the rest ignore it. Yet the sender, convinced of his rightness and knowing the wide potential coverage of newspapers, magazines, or broadcasting, assumes that his message has been attended to and has done its work.

In 1965 Charles Pyron who was a teacher in the Division of Continuing Education at the University of Oregon delivered a lecture that included the saying. The newspaper report about the address attributed the statement to “William White” which was probably a misspelled reference to “William Whyte”: 5

“As William White once said, the greatest barrier to communication is the illusion of it in the mind of the sender,” Pyron said.

In 1969 a newspaper in El Paso, Texas printed an advertisement for the “Southwest Title Company” that included an unattributed instance of the saying: 6

The greatest problem of communication is the illusion that it has been achieved.

In 1973 a newspaper in Wisconsin reported on a speech by an assistant professor of management that included the adage. The words were attributed to “William H. White” instead of “William H. Whyte”: 7

“Who Listens?” was Mirsberger’s topic and he opened with a quote from William H. White: the greatest enemy of communication is the illusion of it.

In 1979 a newspaper in Lexington, North Carolina reported on a speech by a local bank executive who attributed the saying to Martineau: 8

He closed his program with a statement from Pierre Martineau, who said: “The greatest enemy of communication is the illusion of it.”

In 1994 a business book titled “The Five Pillars of TQM: How to Make Total Quality Management Work for You” attributed an instance of the saying to the prominent literary figure George Bernard Shaw: 9

Communication is at best an imperfect art. George Bernard Shaw captured the principal problem with this short sentence: “The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”

In 1997 an article about a former executive in a healthcare company described an e-mail he sent that contained the adage: 10

A month earlier, he sent e-mail quoting Shaw: “The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”

In conclusion, QI believes that William H. Whyte should be credited with the expression he used in the September 1950 citation. Pierre Martineau helped to popularize the adage, but he did not craft it. QI conjectures that the different versions in circulation evolved from Whyte’s statement. The linkage of the statement to George Bernard Shaw appears to be spurious.

Image Notes: Woman model using hand gesture from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Telephone handset from OpenClips at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Dennis Hooper and Peter Daniels whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1950 September, Fortune, “Is Anybody Listening?” by William Hollingsworth Whyte, Start Page 77, Quote Page 174, Published by Time, Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1957, Motivation in Advertising by Pierre Martineau, (Director of Research and Marketing, Chicago Tribune), Chapter 1, Quote Page 1, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1960 October, Public Health Reports, Volume 75, Number 10, Conference Report: Web of Mutual Anticipations, (Eastern States Health Education Conference at the New York Academy of Medicine, April 28 and 29), Start Page 927, Quote Page 927, Issued by U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  4. 1963, The Nature of Public Relations by John E. Marston (Assistant Dean, College of Communication Arts, Michigan State University), Quote Page 249, Published by McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  5. 1965 February 13, Eugene Register-Guard, ‘Sermon Message Missed by Most’, Quote Page 2A, Column 7, Eugene, Oregon. (Google News Archive)
  6. 1969 October 21, El Paso Herald-Post, (Advertisement for: Southwest Title Company) Quote Page B12, Column 6, El Paso, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1973 January 26, Herald Times-Reporter, Family Service Honors Retiring Board Members, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Manitowoc, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1979 April 5, The Dispatch, Club Notes: Lexington Credit Women, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Lexington, North Carolina. (Google News Archive)
  9. 1994 Copyright (1995 edition), The Five Pillars of TQM: How to Make Total Quality Management Work for You by Bill Creech, Series: Truman Talley, Quote Page 320, Published by Truman Talley Books/Plume, a division of Penguin Books, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)
  10. 1997 September 11, Marietta Journal, ‘Brilliant, driven, bizarre’: E-mail reveals man behind industry transformation by John Hendren (Associated Press writer), Quote Page 7B, Column 3, Marietta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)