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Arto Mustajoki

Arto Samuel Mustajoki
Born, December 20, 1948, Tampere
Four children, 11 grandchildren

Master of Arts 1970 (German Philology), PhD 1981 (Russian language), University of Helsinki

Professor of Russian Language and Literature 1982–2016, University of Helsinki
Vice-Rector 1992–1998, University of Helsinki
Dean 1988–1992 and 2014–2016, Faculty of Arts, University of Helsinki
Member of the Board of the Academy of Finland 2001–2006, 2014-
Chair of the Research Council for Culture and Society (Academy of Finland) 2001–2006
Chair of the Board of the Academy of Finland 2010–2014
Vice-President of Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, 2006-2008, President 2008-2010
Member of the Finnish Research and Innovation Council 2011-2015
International Association of Teachers of Russian Language and Literature (MAPRYAL), Member of Board 1981–, Secretary General 1991–2003, Vice-President 2003–

Research Student, Leningrad State University 1971–1973
Visiting Fellow, Cambridge University 1990–1991
Invited guest lectures abroad: Moscow, Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Saratov, Simferopol, Almaty, Ulan-Bataar, Bishkek, Tartu, Tallinn, Budapest, Warsaw, Sofia, Basel, Oxford, Gothenburg

Recent publications

Full list of publications as of 2008

Publications in PDF-format

The most cited publication

Curriculum Vitae

Honours and awards
“Orden Druzhby Narodov,” President Gorbatshov 1990
Member of Finnish Academy of Science and Letters 1991
Commander's Cross of the Order of the Lion of Finland 1992
Honorary Doctor, Russian Academy of Science 1995
Honorary Professor, Moscow State University 1999
“Orden Druzhby,” President Medvedev 2010
Commander of the Order of the White Rose of Finland 2013

Photo: Veikko Somerpuro
Written by Arto Mustajoki
Revised by Matthew Billington

Causes of misunderstanding

Тhe most serious problem in the world is that people do not understand each other. Failures in communication take place in various circumstances and conditions: at home, at work, between social and ethnic classes, between religions and nations. They can lead both to small complications or troubles in our everyday life and large-scale conflicts between societal groups and cultures. The significance of the problem was the reason I decided to do my bit in studying the causes of miscommunication.

In trying to understand the mechanisms of communication failures, I have been forced to go outside pure linguistics and discover what we can learn from studies where the human being is taken as a cognitive and societal creature. The starting point of my thinking is the following diagram, which describes interaction as a circle rather than a linear line, as it is usually understood.

Each stage of interaction includes some risks for successful communication:

  1. The speaker wrongly interprets reality (sees or hears what does not correspond to the truth);
  2. The speaker tries to express a thought which is unclear to him- or herself;
  3. The speaker is unable to express the desirable thought clearly enough;
  4. The speaker speaks in a low voice, pronounces unclearly (mumbles, swallows part of speech; etc.) or makes a slip of the tongue;
  5. There are disturbances in the situation of communication (a loud noise in the street, in a disco, at a reception, a vacuum cleaner etc.);
  6. The recipient mishears the message (a slip of the ear);
  7. The recipient understands the message in different way from that intended by the speaker;
  8. The recipient connects the message to another person, bus, shop, thing etc.

The mental worlds of the speaker and the recipient influence all the stages of interaction. Some words may be unknown to the recipient (the names of people, birds, concepts etc.). The interpretation of some other words may be different, for instance what freedom, equal rights, holiday, grandma, city, cold weather or in the morning mean. People’s mental worlds consist of language command, cultural knowledge, values and everything they have experienced during their lives. Their most recent experiences play a special role. That is why, for example, a phrase like “the bow was awfulapparently has different interpretations depending on where a person has just been: in a concert, in a glasses shop or in archery training.

As such, the ambiguity of phrases is not a big problem in communication if the interlocutors have similar mental worlds. Almost everyone understands the phrase “They sell white shirts and ties in the market in a similar way: ties are obviously not white. However sometimes different readings are possible, as in “They sell black suits and shoes in the market.”

The starting point in human thinking is that other people think in the same way as we do, especially if the person belongs to “us” (the so-called common ground fallacy). This kind of egocentrism is a salient cause of misunderstanding in everyday life. It can be avoided by proper recipient design. However, recipient design often fails because the speaker is too eager to say what he or she wants to say. The desire to be regarded as smart and clever overrides the rules of recipient design. Nevertheless, acting in this way has the reverse effect: a person will be misunderstood and seen to lack interest in listening, which will have a negative impact on that person’s reputation.

The limitations of the human brain play an important role in the way we interact. In order to avoid becoming tired, we must minimise our cognitive efforts. This leads to poor concentration in interaction. As speakers we fail to conduct recipient design and as recipients we slip into thinking about quite different matters.

Two blogs on communication and recipient design:

Papers on miscommunication:

Papers on коммуникативная неудача:


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