1028: Communication

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Revision as of 20:43, 17 February 2013 by Alpha (talk | contribs) (Explanation)
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Anyone who says that they're great at communicating but 'people are bad at listening' is confused about how communication works.
Title text: Anyone who says that they're great at communicating but 'people are bad at listening' is confused about how communication works.


This comic is divided into two parts, the first two rows of panels and then the third one. In this explanation, each bullet point corresponds to a single panel.

The first part demonstrates a failed attempt at communication:

  • White Hat sees a hole in his path, and thinks that it should be marked off to warn people.
  • White Hat tells Harry about the hole.
  • Harry doesn't understand the warning, only seeing an exasperated White Hat ranting about something.
  • Harry continues on towards the hole, and his lack of understanding irritates White Hat.
  • White Hat, still annoyed by Harry's apparent indifference, encounters Megan. Megan tries to tell White Hat about another hole, but White Hat doesn't understand.
  • White Hat and Megan continue on, both frustrated.
  • Megan meets Harry, and they are able to communicate that White Hat was upset about something.
  • They continue on towards the first hole, unaware of it.
  • Megan and Harry fall into the first hole since it wasn't properly communicated to them.
  • White Hat falls into the second hole since it wasn't properly communicated to him.

The holes are, hilariously, only about one person deep and it is not clear why people don't see them when they come upon them.

The second part demonstrates a much more successful attempt at communication:

  • Beret Guy sees a hole in his path.
  • He walks off to explain it to someone.
  • Beret Guy tries to explain the hole to Cueball.
  • Cueball doesn't understand it, so Beret Guy leads him to the hole.
  • Beret Guy shows Cueball the hole.
  • Cueball understands the warning now.

The moral of the story is that the best way to communicate is to show instead of tell.

If you are not familiar with it, the symbol of the triangle with the exclamation mark in it is a widely used symbol that means "warning".

The title text references the requirement that "communication" is a two-sided process and just telling someone something does not mean that you "communicated" the information to them.


[A guy in a hat looks down at a large gap in the walkway; a thought bubble with a warning symbol and an image of the gap appears above the guy's head.]
[The guy walks to the right, away from the gap, and encounters another guy, to which he speaks (in iconographic speech bubble form), attempting to inform him about the gap. A thought bubble appears above the other figure's head with an image of the gesturing guy.]
[The first guy continues, waving his arms, still talking about the gap. The second guy's thought bubble continues to contain images of the first guy gesturing frantically.]
[The second guy shrugs in a nonplussed manner, and the first guy leaves off the right side of the frame. Both have thought bubbles displaying the other's reaction.]
[The first guy continues to the right and comes across a woman. He tells her about the reaction of the previous guy (again in iconographic form); she simultaneously tries to tell him about a gap and gestures off to the right of the frame.]
[The first guy and the woman both leave the frame thinking of each other's reactions; the woman exiting left and the guy exiting right.]
[The woman (still thinking about the first guy) encounters the second guy (who is also still thinking about the first guy).]
[The pair talk about the first guy.]
[The pair continue talking about the first guy as they exit the frame to the left.]
[A commotion is heard from the left.]
[The camera pans over to the left, where the pair have fallen into a gap in the walkway. A commotion is then also heard from the right.]
[The camera pans over to the right, where the first guy has also fallen into a gap.]
[A third guy in a beret comes across a gap in the walkway.]
[The guy in the beret runs off the frame to the right.]
[The guy in the beret meets a fourth guy, and tells him (in iconographic form) to come with him. The fourth guy has a thought bubble of the guy in the beret.]
[The guy in the beret takes the fourth guy's hand and leads him along to the left. The fourth guy's thought bubble has question marks around the guy in the beret.]
[The guy in the beret leads the fourth guy to the gap and shows him it.]
[Both the guy in the beret and the fourth guy walk away from the gap to the right, now both thinking about the gap.]

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I can't decide if the irony that this comic didn't communicate its idea well was intentional or if I just didn't get it at first because I'm dumb... (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Don't worry. Not everybody can read "international," so it may be a bit hard to interpret. Really, he's just citing John R. Trimble: "Clear writers assume, with a pessimism born of experience, that whatever isn't plainly stated the reader will invariably misconstrue." In this case, after several examples of poor communication (and the consequences) the only clear communicator is Beret Guy, who rather adeptly shows rather than tells Cueball of the peril. Visual prolix? Maybe. As you say, that may be the point. -- IronyChef (talk) 02:44, 19 August 2012 (UTC)
Well, it wouldn't be that you're dumb, it would be that you're "bad at reading comics" :) - jerodast (talk) 16:43, 21 December 2012 (UTC)

I don't believe that the holes are only one person deep. It seems as though the heads are level with the ground just to show who is falling into each hole at that moment. 11:20, 21 September 2012 (UTC)

After panel 5-6, does WHG think that he actually communicated the left hole successfully to the girl, given that he does not understand her "hole!" message as a warning of the right hole? I remember that's how I read it the first time. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Where does the name Harry come from? Is this established usage on the wiki? Dropping it in the explanation out of nowhere is confusing. - jerodast (talk) 16:44, 21 December 2012 (UTC)

Using names to refer to the characters was a tradition that was officially started back on the blog when Berg guest authored one of the explanations. This makes it easier for everyone to be sure they are referring to the same character, and they're also cute fan-made names. lcarsos_a (talk) 17:04, 21 December 2012 (UTC)
Sure sure, I get that, but Cueball and Danish have pages where confused users can go to understand where the name came from. "Harry" just drops out of nowhere here. Does he appear in other comics? Should we make a page for him? - jerodast (talk) 16:19, 22 December 2012 (UTC)
I don't think we call him Harry, but there are other comics where a character with a little bit of hair shows up. If he shows up in at least 3 comics you can go ahead and create the category and his character page. lcarsos_a (talk) 17:04, 22 December 2012 (UTC)
He was of course referring to Hairy which has been clarified long time ago. --Kynde (talk) 14:11, 16 March 2015 (UTC)

I disagree that the moral is that the best way to teach is to show someone, I believe the moral is that teaching hasn't happened until the learner understands. If you succeed in communicating by talking, that's great, if you succeed by showing, that's great too. However, if you try to teach by talking and the other person doesn't understand, you've failed. If you try to teach by showing and the other person doesn't understand, you've also failed. I'm going to make a change to include that. If anyone objects, revert it. Djbrasier (talk) 20:35, 22 August 2013 (UTC)

I agree with you (that is a first ;-) I think you forgot to implement the change you were advocating for, and said you would make. I have tried to make it clear that it is about communication not about how you do it. --Kynde (talk) 17:20, 16 March 2015 (UTC)

I took the moral to be that you need to not immediately jump to what you're you're saying, rather talk a little first. Banak (talk) 17:00, 16 November 2013 (UTC)

I don't get what part of "there's a hole over there" is so hard to understand that you need to show them it for people not to be confused. Really, this comic must've been based on some special kind of stupid people.-- 07:56, 4 June 2014 (UTC)

Are you familiar with the concept of a metaphor? Did you miss the xkcd comic where Randall himself pointed out that models are imperfect representations of abstract ideas (iirc, the example in question was gravity as it relates to spacetime, "what's pulling the planet down into the grid then?") It isn't lost on me that this comment is a year old, I just... it felt like it necessitated a response. If you're getting caught up in the specifics of this being a literal situation, then it's you who has missed the point. Aepokk (talk) 08:55, 6 September 2015 (UTC)
(yeah, I know this is more than three years old) Aside from what Aepokk already wrote, if I told you "Пази, рупа на путу у оном правцу", would you immediately understand what I was trying to communicate to you? BytEfLUSh (talk) 23:06, 23 October 2017 (UTC)

«It is very typical for the character Beret Guy to succeed, especially with something difficult, where White Hat fails.» I would be grateful for examples that show how this is typical. :-) 19:26, 12 February 2017 (UTC)