3 – Bypassing

General Semantics: An Approach to Effective Language-Behavior
General Semantics: An Approach to Effective Language Behavior was developed and presented on the Canvas Network by Steve Stockdale, Mary Lahman, and Greg Thompson. It is reproduced here under terms of the Creative Commons Share Alike License as published on Canvas Network from 13 January – 24 February 2014.

Module 3 Pages

Bypassing | Bypassing Case Analysis
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources

Module Map – led by Mary Lahman, PhD

Awareness and ActionIn Module 2 we discovered the contributing factors and correctives for allness. In Module 3, we will continue to apply what we have learned about General Semantics to build more effective language behaviors.

Mary will lead this module based on excerpts from her PDF textbook, Awareness and Action. These excerpts can be read within the Canvas pages so it’s not necessary to download the PDF textbook. Because minor changes have been made to accommodate the online format and module numbering, we prefer and recommend you read the pages from within Canvas to complete the assignments. But you are welcome to download and read the complete textbook.

Module Learning Objectives

After successfully completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Identify the GS premise that explains bypassing.
  • Explain the contributing factors to bypassing.
  • Explain why we why would we make the assumption that words mean the same to us as they do to another.
  • Identify the correctives needed to combat bypassing.
  • Explain how we can become sensitive to the contexts in which others are using words.

Module Activities

This week we will learn how to use GS principles to avoid bypassing. You will:

  1. Complete the module reading, excerpt from Chapter 5, Bypassing, from Awareness and Action.
  2. Watch another Lee video in which he explains bypassing.
  3. Review basic aspects of verbal awareness.
  4. Watch an episode of the Twilight Zone series titled “Word Play.”
  5. Analyze character behaviors from a sample Case Study.
  6. Participate in a Discussion related to bypassing.
  7. Choose one other Case Study for further analysis (from Cases 3.1, 3.2, or 3.3).
  8. Complete the module quiz.

Chapter 3: Bypassing – authored by Mary Lahman, PhD

Missing Each Other With the Words that We Choose

In communicating with others, we often focus on the message instead of the person with whom we are interacting. We focus on words because we believe meaning is in the word. We forget Korzybski’s premise that “a map is not the territory” (the word is not the thing). Moreover, we must learn specific language behaviors needed to address bypassing, because as Anton proposed, “there is no not territory.”

Use the following questions and slides to guide your reading (excerpted from Chapter 5 in Awareness and Action, pages 47-52) and viewing of the Twilight Zone episode entitled “Word Play,” all on this page.

  1. Why would we make the assumption that words mean the same to us as they do to another?
  2. How can we become sensitive to the contexts in which others are using words?
  3. Are there situations where doublespeak might be ethically defensible? Why?
  4. What did you learn from watching the Twilight Zone episode entitled “Word Play”?

It is precisely because each of us sees and experiences the world differently that language becomes our most important means for coming to some kind of agreement on our individual experiences, on how we see the world.  — William Lutz (1989, p. 6)


The map–territory analogy resonates because people know that any given map cannot represent all of its territory. Additionally, we know that because maps are self-reflexive, we confuse levels of abstraction. Now, we will discover that we still can miss each other’s meanings because we forget that a map is not the territory it represents: “If we reflect upon our languages, we find that at best they must be considered only as maps. A word is not the object it represents” (Korzybski, 2000, p. 58).  The map represents the assumptions and experiences of the mapmaker. This section explores what happens when people do not recognize that meaning is in the mapmaker (person), not the map (word).

How many people can remember being sure that they understood what a teacher meant by “summarize the article” but later discovered that our interpretation of “summarize” and the teacher’s interpretation were very different? Haney (1992) explained this phenomenon as bypassing: “the listener presumably heard the same words that the speaker said, but the communicators seem to have talked past each other” (p. 268). The listener and speaker act as if the words mean the same thing to each person, but their interpretations are different. Similarly, communicators can use different words to refer to the same thing: some call a soft drink “soda,” whereas others refer to it as “pop.”  Miscommunication often results because these assumptions are faulty and go unnoticed.

When I tell students that there will be a “quiz” during the next class period, I receive few inquiries concerning the nature of the assessment. Students might ask what material will be included on the quiz, but rarely do they ask about the number or type of questions, and how the score will impact their final course grade. Many times, because quizzes are used to judge comprehension of material not mastery, there is little impact on final grades. We miss each other’s meaning because we do not check the meaning each person intended, even if we are using the same words.

Consequently, we need to explore contributing factors that lead to bypassing. Once we discover why we do not routinely inquire about others’ meanings, we will be challenged to build new habits, such as paraphrasing and exploring contextual clues.

You may want to refer back to the Consciousness of Abstracting-Evaluating page in Module 1 to review bypassing in the context of other behaviors to be aware of.


Haney (1992) suggested that bypassing is caused by two assumptions: words have mono-usage and they have meanings. First, we operate under the assumption that words have mono-usage when we forget that words have more than one meaning. Haney (1992) advocated for “learning about the prevalence of multiusage in our language . . . [so we] will anticipate that words can readily be understood differently by different people” (p. 274). He noted numerous examples of “word coinage,” the invention of new word with acronyms, such as “AIDS” (p. 275), and of “usage coinage,” the new use of existing words, such as “high” (p. 277).

Similarly, Haney (1992) challenged readers to find words that were used in only one way: “for the 500 of the most commonly used words in our language there is aggregate of over 14,000 dictionary definitions!” (p. 274). Regional variations and technical jargon encountered daily compound this conundrum. How many times have you been unable to understand medical terminology used by a physician?  Do conversations with a plumber and car mechanic make any more sense? How many people can follow the political jargon used to debate the national debt?

With a better understanding of multiuse language, we recognize that the assumption, words have meaning, also is inaccurate. We know from our understanding of general semantics that the “map is not the ‘territory,’ so there is no not territory,” so it follows that meaning in the person, not in the map (word). Similar to the inference–observation confusion, people take an uncalculated risk when they assume understanding based on words and nonverbal cues.

Moreover, we must remember that each person is operates from a particular cultural context. According to Hofstede (1984), cultures vary in how they manage power differences, are tolerant of ambiguity, value the individual or collective, and emphasize assertiveness or nurturance. Therefore, we may miss each other with meaning because we do not understand differences in attitudes and beliefs. As Morreale et al. (2007) explained:

In collectivist cultures, collective goals take priority over individual goals. People in collectivist cultures such as Japan, China, and Korea may find it hard to speak up and offer their opinions in a group setting, especially if those views are contrary to the group’s majority opinion.  Their sense of loyalty precludes them from voicing dissenting opinions and disrupting the group. (p.64)

Finally, when people use language with intent to miscommunicate, they are guilty of “deliberate bypassing” (Haney, 1992, p. 286). Lutz (1989) called this phenomenon “doublespeak”: language that avoids or shifts responsibility . . . that conceals or prevents thought” (p. 1). Doublespeak is used to mislead and deceive. Lutz has written several books and many articles about forms of doublespeak that are used by organizational and political leaders; in particular, he identified four forms:

  1. Euphemism: “an inoffensive or positive word or phrase used to avoid a harsh, unpleasant, or distasteful reality” (p. 2).
  2. Jargon: “the specialized language of a trade, profession, or similar group” (p. 3).
  3. Gobbledygook: “a matter of piling on of words, of overwhelming the audience with words, the bigger the words and the longer the sentences the better” (p. 5).
  4. Inflated language: “designed to make the ordinary seem extraordinary; to make everyday things seem impressive; to give an importance to people, situations, or things that would not normally be considered important; to make the simple seem complex” (p. 6).

Unfortunately, we find many examples of doublespeak in politics, business, and education. For instance, when leaders use “collateral damage” to describe civilians who die in warfare and “re-engineering” to describe layoffs, they are employing euphemisms to mislead the public involved. Similarly, when administrators use jargon and long sentences, they may be trying to obfuscate, not elaborate. These examples motivate us to confront bypassing in personal and professional contexts.


Similar to the previous patterns of allness and inference–observation confusion, we recognize that we cannot fully eliminate bypassing. However, the following correctives will prevent as much bypassing as possible. These actions must become a habit, an immediate response during a communication event.

Be Person-minded, not Word-minded

Do you ever find yourself arguing with friends over silly questions? It might be that you are not at odds about the facts involved but merely disagreeing about the “label” that each person gives those facts. For example, when you consistently arrive 15 minutes late for family dinners, some members may interpret your behavior as disrespectful of “family time,” whereas other family members think that it is fine to disregard a cultural norm of being punctual.

We often forget that words are meaningless symbols until someone attaches meaning to them. One of my favorite ways to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of language is to watch the Twilight Zone episode, “Wordplay,” which can be found on YouTube. In the “Wordplay, Episode 1,” the main character, Bill, quickly discovers that the words people use do not make sense in the context in which the words are normally used. For example, as Bill leaves for work, the neighbor refers to their dog, which just had puppies, as an “encyclopedia.” When Bill gets to work, a customer discusses celebrating 17th wedding “throw rug,” meaning, of course, a 17th wedding “anniversary.” Later in the episode, when a colleague and Bill’s wife both refer to “lunch” as “dinosaur,” Bill knows that he has entered the “twilight zone.” As “Wordplay, Episode 2” unfolds, however, Bill painstakingly communicates with his family by focusing on the people and contexts, not the words being used.

In real life, people who are aware that meaning resides “in the person” are less concerned with dictionary definitions and are more attuned to what senders mean in different contexts. If we clarify that we are using words in the same way as those with whom we communicate, we are being “person-minded.” For example, imagine how it would feel to interact with someone whose first priority is to understand what you mean by “down time.” Instead of assuming that you want to read a magazine and then take a nap, he or she would understand that cleaning might energize you more than reading and napping.

Query and Paraphrase

Curious people find it easy to be person-minded. Unlike those who are sure that they know what others mean, inquisitive individuals are more worried about learning than whether others perceive them as being intelligent. Many college professors and business managers agree with Haney’s (1992) conclusion that asking thoughtful questions will earn the respect of superiors because questions show “interest and a sense of responsibility” (p. 290).

Similarly, if we paraphrase—using our words to summarize a speaker’s message and to clarify the accuracy of our interpretations—we are being person-minded. If you have tried to accurately summarize what another person’s directions, you know the time-consuming nature of this process. However, when you avoid getting lost because you have paraphrased well, ultimately, you might save time and build supportive communication climates.

Be Approachable

In addition to remembering to query and paraphrase, we must do all we can to be receptive to others’ ideas and behaviors. Haney (1992) recommended asking the following question each day: “Am I genuinely receptive to feedback, and do I continually communicate my receptivity to others?” (p. 293). This means paying close attention to messages that we might be unintentionally sending, both verbally and nonverbally. Researchers note the importance of nonverbal cues for mutual understanding: we need culturally appropriate occulesics (use of eyes), proxemics (use of personal space), and haptics (use of touch), in addition to effective vocalics (use of voice) and kinesics (use of body) for the various settings in which we communicate (Morreale et al., 2007).

Perhaps by identifying what makes other people approachable in various contexts, we can incorporate such verbal and nonverbal skills when interacting with others. Moreover, we could solicit feedback from those we trust. If someone suggests that lack of eye contact makes us seem “unapproachable,” we could purposefully monitor our connections with others, especially if we are living and working in the United States, where providing good eye contact is a sign of caring and respect.

Be Sensitive to Contexts

Haney (1992) proposed that the “surrounding words (verbal context) and the surrounding circumstance (situational context)” (p. 295) provide the clues needed to prevent bypassing. We know this to be true in educational contexts when we discover the meaning of new concepts by noting how they are used in a sentence.

Many of us like the challenge of a good mystery, so we might enjoy being a “language detective,” discovering the meaning in the person and the context. Postman (1976) coined the phrase “stupid talk” to refer to language used by those who ignore contextual cues; it is “talk that does not know what environment it is in” (p. 20). He argued that effective communication includes people and their purposes, in addition to “general rules of the discourse by which such purposes are usually achieved . . . [and that] particular talk actually being used in the situation” (Postman, p. 8). We need to explore whether our language is both appropriate and effective for the context.

Correctives for Bypassing:

Be person-minded, not wordminded — Disagree with the dictionary and agree with the person’s background.

Query & paraphrase — Summarize a speaker and then ask clarifying questions.

Be approachable — Be open to verbal and nonverbal feedback.

Be sensitive to contexts — Be mindful of the situation in which the word was used.


In communicating with others, we often focus on the message instead of the person with whom we are interacting. We focus on words because we believe meaning is in the word. We rely on dictionaries and past experiences to find meaning, instead of being curious about the contexts in which we find ourselves. Moreover, we forget that most of our words have multiple meanings. We are unaware that people might use euphemisms and jargon to mislead.

To implement the premise that “a map is not the ‘territory,’ so there is no not territory,” we must act as if we know that meaning is in the person. We need to be sensitive to contexts in which a person is using a word, carefully paraphrasing answers to clarifying questions. Throughout this text we have learned that additional inquiry can lead to more effective message construction because we cannot possibly know everything about anything and because language is self-reflexive. Even though paraphrasing might be time-consuming at the outset, it builds trust in a relationship, which might save valuable time in the long run. Perhaps we might learn something new and become more approachable in the process.


1. Document your reflections on these questions in your Personal Journal:

  • How might you teach your supervisor at work about bypassing?
  • Why would we make the assumption that words mean the same to us as they do to another?
  • Are there situations where doublespeak might be ethically defensible?

2. Throughout the week (and the duration of the course):

  • Engage a supervisor, co-worker, or friend at work in a conversation in which you explain the significance of understanding bypassing.

3. Share your insights and experiences with others in the course by participating in the Module 3 Bypassing discussion.

Remember, you won’t be able to see others’ responses until you’ve posted yours.

Bypassing Slide 1

Bypassing Slide2

Irving J. Lee from “Talking Sense” on Bypassing

If you have trouble viewing YouTube videos, try this as an alternative:

The basic question is not, “What did a person say?” The question is, “Does what a person says fit the life facts.”

Verbal Awareness

from Chapter 2 of Awareness and Action

Korzybski (2000) argued for a “complete denial of ‘identity,’” an elimination of identification, to help us match the structure of our language to the nonverbal world it represents (p. 10). In other words, we need to challenge our perceptions because, as we learned earlier, what we describe is not what we sense, and what we sense is not what happened. Korzybski was concerned with humans confusing these levels of abstraction: “When humans who are engaged in abstracting identify (confuse) orders of abstracting they are “identifying” . . . [and] identification [becomes] the primary mechanism of misevaluation” (as cited in Pula, 2000, p. 23). Similarly, Chisholm (1945) explained what happens when we confuse levels of abstraction:

What I say about it is what it is

My statement = truth about subject of the statement


What I say about anything = what it is (p. 3)

Unfortunately, our nervous systems may prevent us from knowing what “it” is for sure but our language allows us to operate as if words, or labels, represent reality. The need for structural changes in our language is apparent in the following example:

If it is what I say it is, it is perfectly safe for me to guide myself entirely in terms of my verbal formulation. I don’t have to look out at the world again at all because I have in me some words which are equivalent to it.

But what is in the cans in a grocery store is more important than the labels wound around them: if a can containing spinach is by mistake labeled pumpkin, no amount of looking at the label will make the pie of the contents palatable pie for anyone but Popeye. Yet identification behavior equates label and thing labeled, and assumes ican safely guide my reactions by the label. (Chisholm, 1945, p. 3)

Even if we laugh at this fuzzy logic, how many times do we react to labels on a daily basis? Labeling some people as “kind” and others as “rude,” we move through our interactions without an awareness of how people change. This is why some general semanticists advocate for elimination of the verb “to be,” proposing that we write in “E-prime,” avoiding the “is” of identity (Bourland, 1989). Murphy (1992) explained that the verb “is” joins “nouns at different levels of abstraction [Mary is a woman]” and joins “a noun to an adjective that neither completely nor permanently qualifies it [Mary is cold]” (p. 20).

Write a paragraph about your best friend and then check it for forms of the verb “to be.” See how many times you use the “is of identity” to link nouns as if they were identical, on the same level of abstraction (e.g., my friend is a physician). Similarly, how often did you find the “is of prediction,” linking nouns with adjectives as if personality characteristics remain constant (e.g., she is amazing)? Just because I am “outgoing” today does not mean that I will act that way in a few days, let alone in a few years.

Murphy (1992) continued with more problems with the verb “to be”:

. . . the verb makes possible the widespread use of the passive voice, conditions us to accept detours around crucial issues of causality (“Mistakes were made”). It makes possible the raising of unanswerable, because hopelessly formulated, questions (“What is truth?”). It makes possible, too, the construction of a variety of phrases (“As is well known . . .”) that casually sweep reasoning under a rug. One also finds the verb to be pressed into service on behalf of stereotypical labeling (“Scotsmen are stingy”) and overbroad existential generalization (“I am just no good”). These issues aside, semanticists say, the verb to be, broadly “Yet identification behavior equates label and thing labeled, and assumes ican safely guide my reactions by the label.” speaking , imputes an Aristotelian neatness, rigidity, and permanence to the world around us and to the relationships among all things in it—conditions that rarely have a basis in dynamic reality. (p. 20)

Such examples demonstrate the need to scrutinize the verb “to be” in our daily thinking, writing, and speaking.

Consequently, we can fully appreciate the need for verbal and nonverbal awareness in light of the abstraction process. The following chapters of this text help us to put this general semantics methodology into daily practice. Ultimately, we want to avoid being trapped at higher levels of abstraction and pursuing unattainable goals, the result of which is well described by Wendell Johnson (1946):

In spite of all the prizes he captures, “success” eludes him! It eludes him for the remarkably obvious, but persistently unnoticed, reason that it is merely a verbal mirage. What he seeks to escape is an absolute failure, what he anxiously pursues is an absolute success—and they do not exist outside his aching head. What he does in fact achieve is a series of relative successes; and these are all that he, these are all that anyone, can ever achieve. But in the midst of relative abundance, absolutistic idealists suffer the agonies of famine. (pp. 5–6)

Twilight Zone episode, “Word Play”

In order to understand the fallacy that words have meanings, that words are just meaningless variables until someone fixes the variable and chooses to interpret the words in a particular way, watch the following Twilight Zone episode.

Why do people argue over silly questions?  They think they are disputing facts, but they are disagreeing about what name they will give to those facts.

Multiple Meanings for “FAST” and “CALL”

Enjoy the following excerpt from William Haney’s 6th edition of Communication and Interpersonal Relations: Texts and Cases (1992, p. 274):

Bypassing Examples

Miscommunication Worksheets

The following worksheets (one completed, one blank) can be used to help recognize patterns of miscommunication, including Allness and Bypassing.

In Column 1, explain with detailed dialogue “who” said “what.”

In Column 2, use the definitions for each contributing factor and then apply it specifically to the dialogue included.

In Column 3, use definitions for each corrective and then apply the correctives to your behavior (it is tempting to want the other person to use the correctives, but they don’t know the correctives like you do!)

Completed Worksheet for Bypassing

Worksheet Example for Bypassing

Bypassing Worksheet Example

Blank Miscommunication Worksheet

Download printable version (pdf)

Blank Worksheet

Module 3 Pages

Bypassing | Bypassing Case Analysis
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources