Thursday, September 29, 2011

Unmuddying the Waters; or Definitions

Picture this:
A friend walks up to you and says, "Hey, I've been talking to this guy lately."

Possible interpretations include:
  • I have been speaking with a boy.
  • I have been flirting outrageously with a boy, hoping he will get the idea.
  • I'm on the brink of entering into a serious, committed relationship with this boy.
  • I married this boy three months ago and I thought you should know about it.
What is at the root of this variety of interpretations? We argue that the answer is definition confusion.

What, really, is the meaning of the word "talking" in this context? Clearly we can debate about this 'til the cows come home, but how can we know, by the end of the conversation, which meaning it held? How can we minimize the problem?

We have noticed that when two people in conversation are using different definitions for the same terms, problems occur. We may or may not have gotten into tiff because of this yesterday (we're all good now), where Kelley used a word with a specific meaning, which Becca interpreted with a different specific meaning. We were both getting frustrated until we stepped back and defined terms. In the end, we weren't actually talking about the same concept, but we were both using the same word to convey that concept.

The second way that definition confusion can arise is when people use different words to talk about the same concept. For example, in the above example "talking" could be a synonym for "starting a relationship." People can end up talking circles around each other, never realizing that they are actually talking about the same idea.

We propose three things:

  • Clarify your terms. Even if you think your meaning is clear, it can be helpful to state exactly what you mean.
  • Provide context when talking to people. Chances are, the more background you provide, the better understood you will be.
  • Keep in mind the context that others are providing when you talk to them. Try to understand the whole movie, not just the snapshot.

So, when describing your upcoming relationship with a boy, you might say, "Hey, I have been talking to this guy lately, and I really like him. I think he is going to ask me out soon, and I am excited to see where this goes." If we all take the time to explain ourselves more fully, we will sidestep many of the miscommunications (and tiffs!) that arise from definition confusion.

Becca and Kelley

"I like you."
"Ok, but do you like me, or do you LIKE me?!"

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