I'm looking for a general, non-technical word or phrase to describe a situation where natural delays in the timing and ordering of human communication leads to confusion and misunderstandings.

What I'm talking about is sort of similar to the "Telephone game" but depends on the order and timing of communication, rather than the quality of it.

Text messaging provides an opportunity for this: You send three text messages in a specific order, but due to how texting works, the recipient may get them in a different order than you sent them in. This could cause serious confusion and misunderstandings.

In software and hardware communication, there are ways to perform error checking and error correction to avoid these issues, but human beings are really bad at consistently following the same rules every time, and tend to take shortcuts or make assumptions.

The point is that because of natural delays in communication (email, voicemail, texting, etc) a lot of confusion and misinformation can be generated. There are technical terms for this in software engineering and system analysis, but I'm looking for a word or phrase I can use to describe this situation to laymen.

To clarify, I'm looking for a term that describes a situation where human communication delays and errors lead to an escalation of confusion, chaos, and further misunderstandings.

To clarify even further, I'm not looking for a general term for confusion or a general term for latency or delay. I'm looking for a word or phrase that can be used to quickly explain that a confusing situation has arisen specifically because of inherent delays in both communication and comprehension.

Examples: (Using barnfargle as a substitute for some other word or phrase.)

"Yesterday's meeting was a real barnfargle because Judy read the last email without reading the ones before it."

"Sam called Jerry about Judy's memo but Jerry thought Sam was talking about Judy's OTHER memo from yesterday, so they scheduled a meeting where each attendee thought it was about a separate subject. What a barnfargle that was."

These kinds of situations are quite common in business communication, but also appear when organizing a family get-together, or planning a softball team schedule. They are not specific to any technology, although technology makes more opportunities for them to happen.

The closest thing I've been able to come up with myself is "comedy of errors" but that's not quite it.

There may not be any term for this, but I think there should be.

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    signal/network latency – Drew Dec 13 '17 at 22:23
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    @Drew: Or lag. – jxh Dec 13 '17 at 23:53
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    It's not so much the existence of latency, as the lack of awareness of that latency and the confusion arising from it. – barbecue Dec 14 '17 at 0:23
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    In publishing, if participants in the editing and production process don't adhere strictly to protocol regarding what's termed the "master [or live] document," they may run into serious problems related to delayed responses or changes made on out-of-date or competing versions of the document. At various publishing houses where I've worked, editors use the generic term versioning problems to describe both the underlying nature of the trouble and the resulting confusion and disarray. – Sven Yargs Dec 19 '17 at 18:44
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    Purely as a word to replace barnfargle in the examples, Charlie foxtrot (or the less polite clusterfuck) is appropriate. It's not something to be said in business settings, certainly, but it's the perfect word for the situation. – Dispenser Dec 20 '17 at 21:17

13 Answers 13

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Snafu ("a situation in which nothing happens as planned and everything goes wrong–Cambridge) does not, of necessity, inherently denote "natural delays in the timing and ordering of human communication"

but

(1) considering its source (the military) and the amount of communication and logistics that are often innate to situations found within the military, the word naturally

"...can be used to quickly explain that a confusing situation has arisen specifically because of inherent delays in both communication and comprehension"

(2) one explanation of the origin of the word refers to actual communication malfunctions. See Researching the real origin of SNAFU

and

(3) it easily replaces barnfargle in both your sentences.

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    This is exactly what I thought of too. And let's no forget the ozzer one: fubar – Lambie Dec 20 '17 at 22:07
  • @Lambie The "ozzer" one? – Azor Ahai Dec 21 '17 at 1:12
  • @Azor-Ahai It's French pronunciation in English, a joke. Fubar and snafu can be seen as going together due to their military origins and how they both mean a situation is completely f***** up. – Lambie Dec 21 '17 at 2:01
  • @Lambie Er, but how do you get from military jargon to French-accented English? – Azor Ahai Dec 21 '17 at 4:02
  • -1 - "snafu" is okay.... But, if one wanted to be specific, it would probably need qualification - such as: 'communication snafu'. – Oldbag Dec 23 '17 at 16:06

While Paul B's answer is excellent and well documented, the common idiom I've always heard and used is getting their wires crossed.

  • All that research, and I completely missed “wires crossed”. It’s more contemporary and I’d say even a better fit than “signals crossed”. – pablopaul Dec 23 '17 at 18:42
  • Please see my new answer, which I think is better :o) – Will Crawford Dec 24 '17 at 14:56

You can say 'to avoid playing telephone tag'.

This expression 'telephone tag' likens trying to communicate, to playing 'a game of tag'.

It was used in the marketing of a voicemail system that I was promo-ing, when I worked in the telecoms division of a major bank.

I think it will be easily understood by laymen.

😊

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    I think this captures the delay part of what I'm looking for, but it's usually associated more with delays or even deliberate stalling tactics, not so much confusion and misunderstanding. – barbecue Dec 14 '17 at 0:38
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    What are you trying to say? Please give sn example of the sentence you are trying to write. – Jelila Dec 14 '17 at 23:19

When I saw your question, the first thought I had was; that's what we used to call 'playing telephone'. But (in lieu of coining a new phrase) if that's not what you're looking for, may I suggest an even more ancient idiom:

"Tower of Babel"

Literally, when Old-Testament God confounded everyone's speech so they couldn't understand each other anymore.

Used metaphorically for generations (before technology complicated it even more) to describe similar situations.

  • I'd like to suggest simply Babel (since allegedly that's the origin of babble as a word). – Will Crawford Dec 26 '17 at 2:02

I doubt any word exists in English which specifically describes the confusion that arises from delays in communication.

The word discombobulation comes to mind. Discombobulate was coined in the early 1800s in humor and means, "to confuse, upset, or throw into disorder," but I imagine it won't fit the bill because it doesn't inherently suggest anything about time.

Although I personally would cast my vote for your barnfargle, I thought perhaps a little play on discombobulation would also be apropos:

Dischronobulation (noun)

  1. The asynchronous arrival of time-ordered information.
  2. The state of confusion caused by the asynchronous arrival of time-ordered information.
  • I think this is the best answer for me personally, and I will be using this term. – barbecue Dec 28 '17 at 23:27
  • @barbecue Thank you. I really hope this word gets some traction! Just for the record, I've experienced it with email, but more often it's dischronobulated text messages that mess up my day. – pablopaul Dec 29 '17 at 0:11

The Dispositio is the system used for the organization of arguments in Western classical rhetoric. The word is Latin, and can be translated as "organization" or "arrangement".

It is the second of five canons of classical rhetoric (the first being inventio, and the remaining being elocutio, memoria, and pronuntiatio) that concern the crafting and delivery of speeches and writing.

The first part of any rhetorical exercise was to discover the proper arguments to use, which was done under the formalized methods of inventio. The next problem facing the orator or writer was to select various arguments and organize them into an effective discourse.


In classic rhetoric kairos is "a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved."

Kairos was central to the Sophists, who stressed the rhetor's ability to adapt to and take advantage of changing, contingent circumstances. In Panathenaicus, Isocrates writes that educated people are those “who manage well the circumstances which they encounter day by day, and who possess a judgment which is accurate in meeting occasions as they arise and rarely misses the expedient course of action".

Kairos is also very important in Aristotle's scheme of rhetoric. Kairos is, for Aristotle, the time and space context in which the proof will be delivered. Kairos stands alongside other contextual elements of rhetoric: The Audience, which is the psychological and emotional makeup of those who will receive the proof; and To Prepon, which is the style with which the orator clothes the proof.

In Ancient Greece, "kairos" was utilized by both of the two main schools of thought in the field of rhetoric. The competing schools were that of the Sophists, and that of their opposition, led by individuals such as Aristotle and Plato. Sophism approached rhetoric as an art form. Members of the school would travel around Greece teaching citizens about the art of rhetoric and successful discourse.

In his article "Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric", John Poulakos defines rhetoric from a Sophistic perspective as follows: "Rhetoric is the art which seeks to capture in opportune moments that which is appropriate and attempts to suggest that which is possible."

Aristotle and Plato, on the other hand, viewed Sophistic rhetoric as a tool used to manipulate others, and criticized those who taught it.

[Edits welcome. Ancient language and Philosophy are not specialties of mine.]

  • What can I say: OMG :) – Lambie Dec 20 '17 at 23:00
  • This is cool, but with a tweak it could be exactly what I need, if you don't mind mixing Latin with Greek, maybe Dyspositio could be coined. Though it seems to have other uses... – barbecue Dec 24 '17 at 23:32
  • @barbecue - There's a lot to study there if you want to finely tweak exactly what you want to refer to, or quite simply: Disposition, the way in which something is placed or arranged, especially in relation to other things. – Rob Dec 25 '17 at 4:55

I just ran into the phrase crossed signals, and it seems to convey better than most words or short phrases the idea of miscommunication leading to confusion or error.

It earliest usage appears to be around the mid- to late 1800s in the railroad and maritime lexicons.

There is no authority in the rules and regulations for what has become technically known among [boat] pilots as "cross-signals"—that is, answering one whistle by two, and two whistles by one."

Scott's New Coast Pilot for the Lakes. George Scott, 1888


By the 1950s, it is often written as crossed signals and begins appearing in scientific articles:

Here there are effectively two signals to each ear, the "crossed" signals being delayed relative to the "direct" signals ...

– The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America - Volume 31 - Page 982


The author concludes that damage of the postural-motor apparatus may create certain difficulties in the formation of conditioned connections to spatial signals and in the differentiation of the latter (as compared with the reactions to color). The greatest difficulties occurred in the differentiation of the crossed signals.

The Central nervous system and human behavior: translations from the Russian medical literature collected... p. 297. National Institutes of Health (U.S.)


It generally seems to describe the confusion or errors caused by communication being errant or out of order.

Since the 1960s, it has become a fairly popular way of describing any miscommunication between two or more people or groups, and it always implies that confusion or problems arise with it. The hyphenated noun version, although a century out of use, seems like it might offer a creative way to express what you are looking for, and I think it would be understood by most:

"Yesterday's meeting was a real cross-signal because Judy read the last email without reading the ones before it."

If that's too much of a stretch, then perhaps the longer but slightly more natural-sounding case of crossed signals might suffice.

You might say that the later callers were "playing catch-up".

play catch-up To try to reach the same level of understanding, accomplishment, etc. as others, typically after a late start. I'm sorry, I'm playing catch-up here—how do you know my wife? I just transferred into this class, so now I have to play catch-up with all the material the professor covered in the first few weeks. Thanks to our terrible start, we've been playing catch-up all season. - The Free Dictionary

The phrase carries the idea of someone running ahead and another person trying to reach the first person's position. The problem was identified, you were notified, you fixed the problem. Someone else is has just reacted to step 1 and hasn't yet realised that you're already past step 3. They're playing catch-up.

Here's a published example of the phrase in use:

  • Are you playing catch-up? You might be playing with your bills, your job, your kids, your caree. Always trying to stay even or even move a little ahead, but seemingly always running to catch up. - Take Comfort, Too by Denise M. Brown
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    (This answer was posted before the OP added the barnfargle examples.) – Lawrence Dec 21 '17 at 3:57

I like befuddle.

vt: 1) to muddle or stupefy with or as if with drink; 2) confuse, perplex; befuddlement noun [Merriam-Webster's]

Stu befuddled the meeting by bringing the wrong report and then trying to recreate the relevant details from memory.

Sally sat in a state of befuddlement after spilling her coffee, unable to speak other than with expletives.

On reflection, a better way to satisfy OP's desire for a word to replace barnfangle might be either:

Train(-)wreck or (n-car) pile-up as a description of the meeting, and a slightly SerFW alternative to clusterf—

or

in higher-level or "formal" situations, it is much more likely that someone will understate things in a dry fashion, and use a term like misunderstanding or débacle

I can split this into two answers if you'd prefer, but it's already my second :o)

  • in fact débacle is definitely le mot juste, and is the “polite” version of the aforementioned expletive; if you need to additionally stress the aetiology of the situation, it should be easy enough – Will Crawford Dec 24 '17 at 1:38

How about confound?

vt: 1a) archaic to bring to ruin : destroy; 1b) baffle, frustrate; ... 5) to throw a person into confusion or perplexity; 6a) to fail to discern differences between: to mix up; 6b) to increase the confusion of [Merriam-Webster's] confounder noun

By way of smudging reports with gravy, and pages congealed together with juice, Sally confounded the workplace with her lunchroom antics.

Bob's ability to perplex others made him the confounder of the group.

"human error" is a widely used word which could serve your purpose at least partially.

There are words in the medical arena that may answer your question, specifically in neurophysiology. I am not a medical professional, but stutters have a commonality with your explanation. Though I totally disagree with your analogy to technology,

The point is that because of natural delays in communication (email, voicemail, texting, etc) a lot of confusion ...

These are not natural delays, they are specific to how the technology is engineered and many instances, what you describe is not what actually happens, but that is a side issue.

The absentminded suffer from communication lapses, the condition has been attributed to..

When suffering from absent-mindedness, people tend to show signs of memory lapse and weak recollection of recently occurring events. This can usually be a result of a variety of other conditions often diagnosed by clinicians such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression.

there are also references to memory problems (for an individual) that repeatedly exhibits the symptoms of not absent-mindedness...

if it becomes a chronic problem or starts increasing in incidence it could be a signifier of a memory problem or condition such as Alzheimer's, dementia, or encoding failure.

Also "aphasia" is another term to describe communication lapses, usually caused by stroke. If you are truly trying to exclude medical conditions for the behavior or effect, then you might try something like the terms already listed or perhaps a word like "chaos"

Here is a link to a list of many medical definitions for commincation disordrs... The link

  • As I mentioned in the original question, I'm not looking for terms specific to a particular technology. It's not a disorder, it's a natural aspect of human communication. – barbecue Dec 24 '17 at 23:28
  • @barbecue sorry I didn't catch your jist, but I believe you may be remiss in excluding terms from the medical field, only in that our language specifically adapts terms from specific fields of study/research to fill in this aspect of vocabulary. A word as specific as you are searching would surely have its roots in some other area rather then having evolved, say from slang. I hope that helps in narrowing your search. Happy Holidays! – htm11h Dec 26 '17 at 20:30
  • actually, what I'm looking for is more of a slang term than a technical one. – barbecue Dec 28 '17 at 22:37

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