MIXED SIGNALS: confusing messages that contradict each other

mixed signalsAs a person with almost no sense of direction, I have to depend heavily upon road signs.    So, when I come across signs that contradict each other I’m in serious trouble.  It happens more than you might think, and the complexity of the instructions can be as confusing as the ones I have chosen for the illustration for today.  I came across two signs at the same intersection recently.

One said: Right lane for right turn only.

The other was an arrow that showed that there was no right turn allowed.  Left turn only.”

Just to be safe I turned left, and ended up on a dead-end street due to construction.  I can’t win.


But mixed signals are not unique to traffic signs.  They may be more commonly recognized on the highway, but there are other forms of mixed signal that may be more problematic.


  1. A teenager, about to leave the house for the evening, hears a parent say, “Have fun tonight.”   But he knows that there is a whole list of things the parents have prepared as to what is not allowed, leaving very little  by which to “have fun.”
  2. A restaurant posts a sticker on the door which says, “Recommended by American Express.”   When the check is presented, the server informs you that they do not accept credit cards.
  3. The sign at the entrance informs you that “This hospital believes in promoting good health.  Use of tobacco products  is not permitted on premises.”  Across the street in a parking lot stand nurses, doctors, and other health providers” having a smoke break “off premises.”
  4. Sign says “Four Way stop at the approaching intersection.”   Yet you watch two police cars (without lights or sirens) breeze through the intersection without stopping.
  5. Pre-teen sits through awkward “no smoking, no drinking, no drugs” lecture by parents, who then light up and have a cocktail in the family room.
  6. Church advertises that it is welcoming to all people, but refuses to allow same-gender marriages or to allow a gay man to stand for office in the annual parish elections.
  7. Candidate for office announces that he is supportive of women and wants to help shatter the glass ceiling.  After being elected he regularly votes against legislation to equalize compensation for men and women.

The list of examples of Mixed Signals could go on and on.  There is a whole separate category reserved for such messages in the social world, where couples send out signals which confuse each other and cause difficult moments.

Mixed Signals are frequently the result of unresolved principles on the part of  rule makers.   They, themselves, are confused and pass it along in promulgations which seem to be firm resolutions.

We are told by psychologists that many times our words and our body language do not support each other.  A firm “no” spoken by someone with a smile on her face is confusing to a child.   A boss who issues rules and regulations in a social setting instead of a business meeting stands the chance of being misunderstood.  An agency head who uses four-letter words in her presentation to her staff has little credibility when the topic is about upholding good standards around clients.  An overweight physician lecturing a patient about weight loss is hard to take seriously.

I admit to being less than proficient in being clear about meanings which come in the context of mixed signals.  I suspect I am not alone on this issue.


Image Credit:  Central Toronto Housing

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