I was discussing with a friend about a rather common situation that had occurred to them and I was wondering if there was a phrase or specific terminology used to describe it:

  1. Person A makes an assumption about Person B.
  2. Person B makes the same assumption about Person A.
  3. Both Person A and Person B decide to withhold mutually desired actions due to the assumption that they have both drawn about each other, resulting in a stalemate.

This is commonly seen when two individuals who like each other are unable to take the next step in the courtship process because they assume that one person does not wish to be with the other intimately.

My best effort:

Inaction due to mutual misunderstanding.

  • I'd like to know whether the requested expression must be applicable to your courtship example. Because if so, my suggestion of Mexican standoff is totally wrong as it implies potential for aggressive outburst.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 6:26
  • The core of the expression I am looking for surrounds itself on the idea that neither individuals are aware that their own perception is the very reason for the lack of progression whereas in a Mexican Standoff both parties are aware of the situation and that one side needs to make a choice to end the stalemate.
    – user289476
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 6:38
  • Hmm, that's very deep. I sometimes wonder why some people need such specific words. I usually assume they're writing a novel.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 7:18
  • Just want to make the point that both the USSR and USA didn't initiate first strike (inaction) due to not knowing what the other guy was thinking (mutual misunderstanding). Also same applies if you're pointing your guns at each other in a Mexican standoff. Are you writing a book?
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 8:49
  • Let me get this straight. You say "inaction due to mutual misunderstanding." So say we're playing doubles tennis. A ball comes flying towards us, roughly between us. Neither of us make the shot, the ball lands inside, and we lose the point." We both say to each other "You were meant to get that!" Is that what you mean?
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 9:03

4 Answers 4


I'd like to make a case for the term communication breakdown here.

a lack of communication; a failure to exchange information
He blamed the mistake on a communication breakdown between two members of staff.


  • A little Google-fu and Eureka! The term I was looking for was ”psychological noise” which results in communication breakdown! Thank you @bookeater!
    – user289476
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 3:31
  • @Drew Parrish Gowan glad it helped. You can self-answer btw. Reading back though you may want to edit the question or re-ask it.
    – Bookeater
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 5:59

Mexican standoff

A Mexican standoff is a confrontation amongst two or more parties in which no strategy exists that allows any party to achieve victory. As a result, all participants need to maintain the strategic tension, which remains unresolved until some outside event makes it possible to resolve it.
Mexican standoff

This exact situation played out for about half of last century during the Cold War. The doctrine commonly adopted was MAD, mutually assured destruction, a type of stalemate.

Edit: This definitely doesn't apply to your courtship example.

A more general term might be:


  1. A situation that is so difficult that no progress can be made; a deadlock or a stalemate: American Heritage Dictionary

or deadlock

  1. a state of affairs in which further action between two opposing forces is impossible; stalemate Collins English Dictionary
  • See also the Wikipedia article on prisoner's dilemma for two-person strategy games en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma In the OP's example, each party fears the consequences of rejection. I don't think the MAD example is quite the same thing.
    – Xanne
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 6:20
  • 1
    I agree that MAD, in this case, does not suffice. I feel that at the core of the situation provided, impasse is most accurate in describing the overall scenario -- being so difficult that no progress can be made -- but does not provide the insight that a phrase could better provide. However, the concept of a Prisoner's Dilemma hits much closer to home, yet again I find the same problem in that it doesn't address inaction due to misconception.
    – user289476
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 6:55
  • @Drew Parrish Gowan "yet again I find the same problem in that it doesn't address inaction due to misconception." It definitely addresses a self-harmful action due to misconception, because if prisoner 1 remains silent, and prisoner 2 decides to turn in prisoner 1, then prisoner 2 ends up much better off, something like 6 points to 1. So by prisoner 1 assuming that prisoner 2 will cooperate (but doesn't) and he cooperates himself, then he gets the worst possible outcome, and prisoner 2 gets the best possible outcome.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 7:31
  • 1
    'This definitely doesn't apply to your courtship example.' Unless the couple are Mexican? :) (RHK Webster's sense 3 for 'standoff') Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 8:41

reach an impasse TFD

to progress to the point that a barrier stops further progress

As in:

Their debate, with identical but unknown shared agendas, had reached an impasse.


Psychological Noise

Perceptions, biases, and assumptions that interfere with the successful transmission and reception of messages.

Reference: Rothwell,Dan J. ''In the Company of Others: An Introduction to Communication''. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004

Psychological noise results from preconceived notions we bring to conversations, such as racial stereotypes, reputations, biases, and assumptions. When we come into a conversation with ideas about what the other person is going to say and why, we can easily become blinded to their original message. Most of the time psychological noise is impossible to free ourselves from, and we must simply strive to recognize that it exists and take those distractions into account when we converse with others.

Reference: Wikipedia

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