Pros and Cons of Word of Mouth Communication

Word of mouth communication takes on a whole new meaning for me.  

Lisa B. Marshall
3-minute read

As I write this, I am in Panama. We had planned a trip to visit Panama to visit my husband’s father who is now 97. However, a week before we left, my mother-in-law (only 77) suddenly fell ill.  The second day we were here, she passed away.  I am not writing this to garner your sympathy but only to set the context for this post.  

My husband is an only child and his father has been remarried for many, many years. So we are the only family—responsible for the funeral, cleaning out her house, and closing out accounts.  I have done this several times in the US (unfortunately) but going through the experience here has given me new appreciation for the terms “word of mouth communication.”

In Panama, just about everything is word of mouth.  At the hospital, we needed a funeral professional, we were told,”Oh, call this guy. Here’s his number.” No social media, no websites, no ads in the paper or phone book (yes they still have them here). When we were arranging the funeral, I asked, “Should we put an announcement in the paper?" The Panamanian relatives looked at me like I was crazy. They asked me, “Why would we do that?  Everyone already knows.” I said, “Well, how will they know when and where to go?” Again, I got the “you are crazy look” along with ”We will tell them.”  Frankly, I doubted it would work here, even after they told me not to worry. Sure enough, we arrived at the church at 10 am on a Wednesday and it was packed— no announcement necessary.   

After the services, it was time to tackle some of the administrative work. For example, we need to pay the electric bill. You would think you could call the company and find out where to pay the bill—yes, they give you a street, but not a location on the street (they don’t have address numbers on the businesses.). Even when we called the main office and asked, “Can you tell us what it’s near?" They said, “We don’t have that information, just ask, and someone will know—it’s on the main road.”

We decided to take a break from all the work and go on a hike. We went to a National Park. Guess what? The trails are NOT marked! Again, the idea is that you already know where to go or perhaps you hire a guide who tell you where to go. I found it interesting that they did have a hand-drawn map at trail entry point (not drawn to scale) but the trails were unmarked and it was very easy to get lost. When we left, we found a ranger’s office. We asked him about the trails—he said, “Oh, well, before you went on the trails you should have stopped here. We would have explained it all to you.” I wondered how we were supposed to know that we were to find the ranger’s cabin and ask? There weren’t any signs that said that at the entrance…then I thought, "Oh, yeah, I know … we should have asked someone before we left!" 

Word of mouth can be powerful for certain cultures. However, if you're on the outside looking in, it can also be frustrating and difficult to navigate. If you're traveling, remember that the expectations for communication may be vastly different than your own!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.