Noise/Interference in Communication Processes

Communications, even those composed with a carefully-applied process approach, can still go awry in terms of your audience understanding your message in the way you intended.  Interference in communication is often called “noise.”  Noise can be physical noise, such as a loud hallway conversation, but it can also be caused by many other sources. The act of communication can be derailed by the following types of noise, which deflect your audience’s focus away from your message:

  • Physical noise
  • Physiological noise
  • Technical noise
  • Organizational noise
  • Cultural noise
  • Psychological noise
  • Semantic noise (language, words)

Physical Noise

Physical noise is interference that comes from an external source, or the environment in which the communication is occurring.  Static on a phone call, meeting rooms in a building near an airport’s flight path, conversations during a presentation, not muting your sound while typing during an online meeting all constitute physical noise.  Physical noise also can be non-auditory in nature. Pop-ups create visual noise in an online environment, just as a co-worker gesturing outside of your office window while you are in an online meeting creates visual noise. Sometimes you can control physical noise, as in asking directly at the start of on online meeting for participants to mute their sound when they are not talking.  Other times you will have no control over physical noise.  As a communicator, realize that you’ll need to be prepared to deal with physical noise.

Some strategies to help your audience understand your message, even with physical noise present, include repeating key information, following up an in-person meeting or presentation with an emailed summary, or repeating questions that participants ask during an online meeting.

Physiological Noise

Physiological noise deals with your own abilities to see and hear, your state of health, whether you are tired or hungry at the time of the communication, or any of many different physiological issues that can interfere with paying attention to a message.  While you cannot do much as a communicator to allay other individuals’ physiological noise, you can pick up visual cues during in-person, real-time communications and adjust your message accordingly.  For example, you can speak more slowly or loudly, or be more succinct if you see your audience’s interest waning before lunch.  For both in-person and electronic communications, you can offer electronic versions of your information to audience members who may need to increase font size.  Be aware that physiological noise exists, and be prepared to adjust to the communication situation and your audience’s needs.

Technical Noise

Technical equipment issues can interfere with your audience receiving and understanding your message.  Online or video conferencing equipment may not work for everyone, connectivity may be slow, or servers may go down. To reduce technical noise, make sure that you practice with the equipment you need to use, and have a back-up plan for communicating lengthy or very important messages using a lower-tech format.

Organizational Noise

Organizational noise can occur if you are unaware of, or disregard, expected communication channels in your organization.  Some organizations are structured so that employees at certain levels only communicate with employees at similar levels, while other organizations are less structured with their communication channels.  As a communicator, make sure you understand your organizational culture as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask peers or supervisors about appropriate channels of communication so that others focus on your message and not the route or persons to whom it was sent.

Cultural Noise

Cultural noise occurs when cultural expectations, etiquette, attitudes, and values differ.  Many different cultures exist based on nationalities, ages, genders, regions, social positions, work groups, and more, and individuals belong to multiple cultures.  As a communicator, your task is to try to reduce cultural noise by being as informed as possible about your communication audience; trying to anticipate and address questions from other points of view; and using inclusive, non-biased language.

Try It

The following video was created by Japanese students to teach the concept of noise.  From your perspective as a student in the U.S., what would create cultural noise for you if you were on assignment in Japan as a new hire in this organization?

After viewing the video, consider what you might do as a communicator to reduce cultural noise for a new hire from Japan who is now working in your organization in the U.S.

Psychological Noise

Psychological noise occurs as a result of personal attitudes, assumptions, and biases.  People have particular perspectives and world views; communication noise occurs when content, language, and perceived attitudes of the communicator and the audience do not mesh. Just as with cultural noise, your task as a communicator dealing with psychological noise is to realize that people will interpret your message differently, depending on their own perspectives.  Try to reduce psychological noise by offering your communication very clearly and directly, using inclusive and unbiased language, and responding calmly and thoughtfully to questions and issues raised.

Semantic Noise

Semantic noise deals with words and language.  Is the language of the communication clear and easy to understand?  Is it free from professional jargon (if the audience is at a low or mixed level of professional understanding)?  Are abstract concepts backed up by concrete examples? Is the language free from grammatical and technical errors?  Are the sentences clear in their structure and easy to read or listen to?  Are concepts offered in an order logical to the communication’s purpose and appropriate to its audience?  Is there too much information, and/or are there too many words?  All of these language issues, however small, can derail focus from the content of your message. As an example, you may have read documents in which the writer consistently uses “its/it’s” incorrectly, or you may have listened to speakers who constantly say “uh” while speaking.  Have you found yourself more focused on counting the “its” or the “uhs” more than listening to the message?

Example of semantic & cultural noise

Cultural expressions and expectations differ not only internationally, but also on many different dimensions from regional to interpersonal.

Someone raised in a rural environment in the Pacific Northwest may have a very different interpretation of “downtown” from someone raised in New York City. To the rural resident, downtown refers to a place, such as the center or urban area of any big city, no matter where that place is located. To a person who lives in or near New York City, though, downtown may be a direction that is more southerly, more than a place. One can go uptown, toward the Metropolitan Museum, or downtown, toward the 9/11 Memorial.  When asked, “Where are you from?,” a New Yorker’s answer may refer to a different sort of place such as a borough (“I grew up in Manhattan”) or a neighborhood (“I’m from the East Village”).

This example involves people with geographical differences, but we can further subdivide between people raised in the same state from two regions, people of the opposite sex, or people from different generations. The combinations and possibilities for semantic and cultural noise, or other types of noise, are endless.

As a communicator, you should work to eliminate semantic noise through careful revision.  Also, whenever possible, request feedback from others to determine whether your audience understands your language in the way you intended.

The following video delves more fully into semantic and psychological noise.


The following video reviews many types of noise that can derail focus from your communication.  However, the video itself contains some noise—see if you can find it, and consider the effect it has on you.