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Use Your Words

For parents of preschoolers, there comes a time - often in the evening - known as “the storm before the calm.”  It can also come about during the day if expectations of some kind are not met, or perhaps if a child is just “hangry.”  Our preferred solution was to remain calm and tell them to pause, take a breath, and “use your words.”  Once children have the words to express their feelings, they are much better equipped to match their behavior to social norms and achieve their goals.  This approach, while often called-for, is not a wise choice for use on another adult.


Emotional turmoil isn’t the only reason we fail to communicate clearly– often we forget that communication is a two-way process.  As Alan Greenspan said, “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” My late father was a Professor of Speech and Drama at the University of Southern California and I listened to versions of this for most of my life.


As a STEM worker myself, I feel justified in saying that professionals like us aren’t always the best communicators.  You may be proudly multi-lingual, but knowing Python, JavaScript and C++ isn’t much help.  Unlike compilers, human brains have an amazing - and sometimes frustrating - ability to interpret words out of context.  Those words we are admonished to use are often made-up in the moment, mis-heard, or change their meaning as language evolves.


Unless you have abstained from computers for the past 30 years, you have a basic understanding of the term “meme.”  Memes are a dependable source of fun on virtually any topic.  But if you had name-dropped the term “meme” back in 1976, readers of Richard Dawkins book The Selfish Gene would have assumed you were talking about a “unit of culture”-a non-funny term coined by a scientist and not a humorist. 


The terms “cool” and “hot” are widely understood to have little to do with temperature, unless of course they are used to describe the weather.  In a conversational sense, they generally mean the same thing, sort of.  An attractive person might be called “hot”, while the latest smartphone would be “cool.”  Both are similarly complimentary, though not quite interchangeable. 


A less clear distinction is attached to the word “nerd”, the meaning of which is highly dependent on context and delivery.  Originally connected with obsessive intellectualism and anti-social traits, it has gradually become cooler.  Perhaps we can thank all those Silicon Valley “nerds” cruising around in their Lamborghinis.  The first recorded use of the word, nearly 70 years ago by none other than Dr. Seuss, referred to a strange little imaginary creature.  Any theories on how “nerd” evolved from that to its current meaning are left as an exercise for the reader.


I was a freshman living in a campus dorm when the Beatle’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was released.  While all my fellow students were smugly noting that this was a clever metaphor for LSD, I was focused on the line “the girl with colitis goes by.”  Who was this poor girl (was it Lucy?) and why were the Beatles singing about her?  When John Lennon said the inspiration for the song was his son Julian’s nursery school drawing of a friend named Lucy O’Donnell, entitled “Lucy.  In the sky with diamonds”, it more or less cancelled the psychedelic vibe.  My empathy for poor little Lucy O’Donnell’s inflammatory bowel disease remained.


I’m sure Credence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising was in no way inspired by the Beatles tale of Lucy and her troubles.  Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think of poor Lucy’s IBS when John Fogerty sang the line “there’s a bathroom on the right.” Finding restrooms in concert venues is always challenging, and many of us appreciated the thoughtful guidance John provided. 


Communication failures resulting from mishearing or misinterpretation are important enough to have their own obscure word – “eggcorn.”  Together with evolving word meanings, eggcorns constitute a substantial barrier to effective discourse.  Neuroscientist Dr. Kris De Meyer of the University College London was running a workshop on climate change when he came upon an additional problem. 


According to Dr. De Meyer, we don’t always agree on even the most basic definitions.  Concepts like risk and uncertainty are vastly different for a software engineer writing code (where a mistake could result in the loss of a job) compared to an oncologist treating a malignancy (where an error might end with the loss of a life).  Even our understanding of “concept” is a complicated mix of emotion and character.  It’s worse still with abstractions like fairness or freedom, which we connect with our individual identity.   Dr. De Meyer likens this to the Far Side Cartoon where an owner is scolding his dog Ginger – all the dog hears is “Blah, Blah, Blah, Ginger, Blah.”  He calls it the “Ginger the Dog” effect.


Those storming preschoolers have an advantage – they are rookie talkers with a limited vocabulary and a simple objective.  For the rest of us, the proliferation of eggcorns combined with the Ginger effect continues to lower the signal-to-noise ratio in our conversations.  There is no short answer.  Awareness of the problem along with taking time to clarify is our best hope. 


In closing, I know you think you understand what you thought I’ve said, and I hope you now realize that what you learned might not be exactly what I wrote.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life.  In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics.  Paul has over 50 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders.  His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.



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