Clear Communication Avoids The Gift Horse

“Never look a gift horse in the mouth.”

On a recent video conference call, a speaker used the gift horse idiom, much to the confusion of many of the attendees. For those who may not be familiar with the expression, it suggests people should not find fault with something that has been received as a gift or favor. It originated from the idea one should not inspect the teeth of a horse given as a gift to determine its age, and therefore its value.

While I’m a big fan of using animal stories, the lack of clear communication derailed the call for about 10 minutes – leaving little time to agree on the way forward for a project behind schedule. This isn’t to say all animal idioms are confusing. I suspect that most people – regardless of whether they are a native English speaker or not – would understand “when pigs fly” suggests something which is impossible or at least extraordinarily unlikely.

But many animal idioms aren’t so easy to determine what they mean, if you aren’t a native English speaker. It’s hard to determine what they mean from the words alone. Here are a few examples:

  • Cat got your tongue?
    Asked of someone being unusually quiet to persuade them to start talking.
  • Chicken out
    When a person changes their mind about something due to fear.
  • Every dog has its day
    Everyone will have success or fame at some point, even the unlucky.
  • It’s raining cats and dogs
    It’s raining very heavily.
  • Until the cows come home
    A very long period of time.

If you’re a native English speaker, the meaning of these idioms is likely obvious to you. But that’s exactly the point – you have the context which makes it clear while others may not have the context and are therefore confused.

Clear communication is based on empathy, focusing on filling in gaps in the listener’s knowledge using concepts they already understand. This requires the communicator to know the audience ahead of time or to ask them detailed questions before starting to communicate.

Clear communication takes work but it’s a true gift.

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4 Responses to Clear Communication Avoids The Gift Horse

  1. karlheinz May 15, 2022 at 10:53 pm #

    Thanks, very interesting! Yes, this can impact effective communication 🙂

    Incidentally, German knows the idiom about the horse’s mouth as well. And it even rhymes
    “Einem geschenkten Gaul
    schaut man nicht ins Maul”
    We also have flying pigs here, but it never rains any animals. And cows coming home is not a thing here.
    On the other side we have
    – puking horses (“man hat schon Pferde kotzen sehen”) – supposedly horses are unable to throw up, so the saying that horses have been seen throwing up refers to that also very unlikely things can happen – do you have this in English as well?

    • Jonathan Becher May 16, 2022 at 9:41 am #

      I don’t know of a horse idiom involving puking. We do have:
      * Back the wrong horse – support the wrong person
      * Change horses in midstream – make major changes in a plan after starting
      * A dark horse – a person who surprised others with unexpected skills and potential
      * A horse of a different color – an altogether different matter
      * Straight from the horse`s mouth – hearing it from a reliable source
      There are probably many more!

  2. Chris S May 16, 2022 at 4:41 pm #

    Seems like good Comms requires more horse sense and less horsing around


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