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

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

Dear 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.

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

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)