The trouble with words
Do we really mean what our listeners understand when we’re communicating?
My wife, who is ophthalmologist, turned to me and said “you’ve got terrible blepharitis”. The chain reaction of response started with “there’s something wrong with my eyes” and had made it to “am I going blind?” before I got around to asking “what’s blepharitis?”. The answer is that it’s inflammation of the eyelids which can be reasonably addressed with a warm damp cloth. This highlights the trouble words can have when the meaning is not equally accessible to both parties in a conversation. I also used the word, ophthalmologist, in the opening (which is a doctor specialising in eyes) as another example of a piece of language which is natural to one group of people but obscure to everyone else. And don’t get me started on the cruelty of a word starting ‘ophth’ for those attempting to write about it…
As vocations and knowledge has developed there’s always been a need for new words to accurately represent ideas, conditions or theories. This is called specialisation (or in some cases: jargon) and it enables a group of people from a technical field to quickly and accurately communicate with each other. This is great within the field but forms a barrier to communication outside of it. The barrier comes from humanity’s general unwillingness to admit ignorance in public. If something in a specialist field says something technical our frequent response is to nod wisely rather than trying to understand what they meant. It can make us feel stupid and less secure. When dealing with specialists we should expect them to be able to make their knowledge accessible to us rather than the other way around. In fact you can reasonably assume that someone using a lot of either complicated or specialised language isn’t being entirely trustworthy. As specialists ourselves we have a responsibility to make our own words accessible.
For another example of this let’s talk about democracy. What does this word really mean? The reason for choosing this as an example is that we frequently use “democracy” as a reason for doing something. The example that comes to my mind dates all the way back to the Iraq war in 2003. Politician after politician came on air to explain why it was ok to roll into another country using “democracy” as an excuse. Yet can we simplify it down to a single word so easily? Plato’s discourse of the subject, The Republic, runs to some 128,000 words and contains both the moral case for democracy and also the pitfalls he expects from it including that “tyranny naturally rises out of democracy”. Which seems oddly appropriate for the age we live in.
If you ask someone to describe democracy they might say that it means “one person, one vote” or that “everyone has an equal say in how things are decided”. Yet these mean wildly different things and can lead to suboptimal outcomes. For example in the UK; it’s possible to gain a crushing majority without even attracting half of the votes. In the US, elections are decided by swing states. This would imply that some people’s votes count more than others. We also know that lobbying firms spend small fortunes to gain access to those in power outside of the voting system. How is it possible we can boil it all down to a single word — and then use that word to justify our actions? The simple answer is; we can’t.
What happens when you reduce a complex and nuanced topic down to a single word is that everyone interprets the meaning their own way. This meaning is usually based on their relationship to or opinion of the person using the word. So when Donald Trump says “Make America great again” — his supporters read one meaning into it and his detractors another completely. Yet neither set of people really seek to explore each other’s nuance and meaning. Becoming increasingly entrenched and vitriolic.
This happens in our work as well. There are words and phrases that we use as if the meaning is universal without stopping to check that our shared nuance is the same. When your project manager comes to you and says “we’re agile” they’re not being specific about how we’re being agile. If you hate tracking spreadsheets this might be interpreted as “oh no, I have to go to yet another series of status meetings”. If you’re managing that organisation you might interpret it as “this is great, we’re looking to move quickly”. If you’ve had a bad experience with “agile” then your alarm bells are ringing.
In the tech world — by reducing things down to simple phrases we often wind up talking at cross purposes without even realising it. These pieces of jargon prevent us having meaningful conversations about the problems we’re solving and lead to misunderstandings that erode trust. So next time you hear a buzzword — don’t feel bad about asking what it means. It will lead to more meaningful conversations. And the next time you’re talking to someone — understand how you can make what you’re saying accessible to them. Jargon and buzzwords make us seem distant and can belittle those we’re talking to if they feel unable to question the underlying meaning. By keeping things simple we bring everyone along with us.