Message Disconnects: Vulgar Jesus

A fellow passenger’s T-shirt caught my eye earlier this week during my commute home from work on the NYC subway.

His shirt read, “DON’T GIVE A F**K.” But before I could form an impression of the man, I noticed something else. He was also wearing a rather large cross necklace – a shiny four-inch silver crucifix.

My cognitive dissonance almost caused me whiplash. Was this man a Jesus-loving person of faith? A disenchanted, disconnected twenty-something? Could he possibly be both?

It made me think of message disconnects, and the profound difficulty they cause audiences.

A message disconnect is when someone simultaneously communicates two contradictory things. It may be a speaker touting an “exciting” new invention in a monotone voice, a woman saying she is very sad while wearing a smirk, or a political candidate telling reporters he understands the problems of poor Americans while climbing into a limo.

One of the most infamous examples of a message disconnect came in 1992, when, during a presidential debate, the late President George H.W. Bush took an ill-timed glance at his watch.

At the very beginning of the below clip, you can observe Mr. Bush glancing at his watch.

That message disconnect communicated two different things: a candidate who couldn’t wait to finish the debate while simultaneously professing his deep caring for the problems of ordinary citizens. Given time to reflect on that moment, even Mr. Bush knew it was a political disaster:

“You look at your watch and they say that he shouldn’t had any business running for president. He’s bored. He’s out of this thing, he’s not with it and we need change. It took a little incident like that to show that I was you know out of it. They made a huge thing out of that.”

The bottom line is this: your words aren’t enough. If your words, your voice, and your performance aren’t perfectly aligned, your audience will debate your real meaning.

Your words are important, yes. Just make sure you give each word its full meaning by reinforcing its meaning with your voice and performance.