The Manners Maven Goes Home

Manners3_HeaderHello once more. H. Kram Nevets here with my final installment in the Manners Maven franchise. I conclude with two short rhapsodies on how our technological tools, used thoughtlessly, can become instead an unwitting assault on interpersonal communication.

 

The Truth About SMS
For me, one of the most intriguing phenomena of the information age is text messaging on mobile phones. When the capability first emerged, it seemed like a valuable and easy way to communicate quietly and quickly when a phone call was not a viable option.

Back in the early days, phones had only the numeric keypad used for dialing. Consequently, inputting a message was difficult and took longer. This did not deter its rapid adoption as a mainstream communication medium, and users invented an entire vocabulary of abbreviations and short cuts (txt-speak) to make input easier. An entire generation has grown up with it as a preferred way to communicate. Now with the prevalence of smart phones packing full alpha keypads, it is even easier to compose text messages.

I am not a big user of texting but find it invaluable on occasion, most notably when traveling or in a situation where I do not wish to share my thoughts with those in my immediate vicinity. For instance, I can text my wife from a taxi to let her know that my flight arrived safely and save the phone call for when I am settled in at the hotel. My wife can even answer without the cabby being any the wiser. Similarly, I can let a colleague know that I am on my way (or not) when I am late for a meeting with a simple “there in 5” or “stuck in traffic.”

Some of my friends and colleagues use texting much more frequently than I do, which is okay under most circumstances. However, I draw the line when someone texts me a draft of his doctoral dissertation and expects me to respond in detail. It is not going to happen. First of all, my ancient fingers just do not work that way. Second, there are too few hours in a day.

Texting is a low latency (highly immediate) medium with an extremely low bandwidth. It operates over SMS (Short Message Service) on our mobile phones. As the name suggests, it is designed to transmit short messages. A paragraph pushes that definition. Multiple paragraphs certainly exceed it. Therefore, unless you know that you are communicating with a fellow text message doyenne who is fluent in txt-speak, I recommend avoiding protracted exchanges. The low bandwidth of the medium reduces communication quality while wasting valuable time.

Choosing the appropriate communications medium for any situation is both good sense and good manners. It demonstrates respect for the time and effort of one’s colleagues.

 

The Elevator Wraiths
I am both a fan and an aficionado of the great science fiction storyteller Rod Serling. While I will admit that he could be ham-fisted at times, what I admired most was his ability to take a simple human foible and spin a yarn that would take us deep into the Twilight Zone while also revealing the macabre underbelly of the foible. Submitted for your approval, a short tale of my own, written in the style of the Master.

“Meet Steven Everyman, an average businessman facing the tattered end of an average work day at the end of an average work week. He is waiting for the elevator on the twelfth floor of an average skyscraper in the center of an average city. Little does he know that in a few seconds, when the elevator doors open, he will begin a short journey that will take him directly through the center of…the Twilight Zone.”

When the elevator doors opened, Steven stepped into the empty car and pressed the button marked “L.” As the doors closed, he moved to the center of the car, facing toward the front. He glanced up at the row of lights indicating the floors, wondering to himself just how many stops there would be during the descent.

The car began to move downward and then slowed for a stop at the eleventh floor. The doors opened and a smartly dressed young woman stepped on. She carried a leather computer bag in her left hand and a cell phone in her right hand. She glanced quickly at the lit “L” button, and then took her place left of center, facing the front of the car. Steven automatically adjusted his position. As the doors closed, her right arm raised and she looked deeply into the phone, her fingers moving competently over the surface. Steven’s eyes darted left, noting her self-absorption, and then up to the row of indicator lights again.

At the tenth floor, the doors opened to reveal a trio of young men, who stepped into the car. They were dressed in casual business attire, one sporting a backpack and the others with computer bags. Two of them checked the “L” light while the third touched it as though the lit indicator might be incorrectly indicating its true status. They, too, turned to the front of the car and the five humanoids adjusted themselves to achieve precisely even spacing between their corporeal boundaries. As the doors closed, the three men drew cell phones from their khaki Dockers simultaneously and peered intensely into the instruments, their fingers mimicking the adept movements of their female counterpart.

Steven was now toward the back of the car with a clear view of his fellow travelers. Their individual concentration was profound. The only audible sound was the whirr of the elevator. Not even the sound of respiration could be heard as twenty fingers twitched silently, their owners veritable statues. Perhaps it was fatigue or maybe a trick of the light, but Steven thought that he discerned a shifting of light about them, almost like a hint of transparency.

His reverie was interrupted at the eighth floor, where two more passengers entered the elevator car. They performed the same ritual of verifying their destination and taking up their forward-facing positions. Not a single face looked up from their thrall as seven bodies adjusted to the space, and two more faces joined the intense scrutiny of their mobile devices.

Sweat appeared on Steven’s face as fear rose in his heart. What might have been a trick of the light before was beginning to happen. The shimmer of translucence was altering the six people ahead of him, and with every passing moment a sense of profound aloneness was overtaking his soul. He had backed tightly against the rear wall of the elevator, unsure what to do next.

Steven’s panic escalated as two more passengers got on at the seventh floor and three at the sixth. Now there were eleven elevator wraiths ahead of him in the car, each completely lost in the dreadful abyss of electronic bondage. As the elevator pursued its descent, they continued to fade from Steven’s sight. The overwhelming sense of loneliness seemed to be as some fetid horror, sucking away his very human essence. What was happening? Were they real? Had they been real once? Had he found himself in the midst of some grotesque zombie apocalypse turned sideways?

His terrified mind raced to identify his next move. Should he stay quiet and hope that they faded away into infinity before the car reached the lobby? Should he bolt at the next floor? Should he…? And then panic overwhelmed him.

“Aaaaaaaaaghhh!” he shrieked. “Am I totally alone?”

Eleven bodies jumped. Two phones clattered to the floor. All turned to stare at the wild-eyed creature huddled in the back corner of the elevator. They shook their heads silently, saying not a word to their companions as they stowed their phones and stepped out into the lobby. Let security handle it.

“A word to the wise. Choose your reality carefully. Is it inside that little slip of plastic, metal and silicon in your hand or is it with your fellow travelers on the elevator of life? Can you recognize the boundary between the two? Steven Everyman no longer can and has become a permanent resident in…the Twilight Zone.”

###

This ends my series on good manners in the electronic age. Feel free, as always, to share you ideas or peeves with The Manners Maven. And who knows, I may be back again in the future. After all, good manners are always de rigueur.

 

 

Another Manners Maven

Manners2_Header

Hello, this is H. Kram Nevets with my second installment of The Manners Maven. Today we dissect two more electronic age assaults on common courtesy.

No, you DON’T have to take this call
Many people have already written about mobile phone bad habits. One of the worst behaviors, of course, is the practice of interrupting a current conversation to answer a ringing, chiming, chirping, rapping, or squawking cell phone. I once heard someone describe this as the “first in, last out syndrome” where anyone who interrupts gets to jump to the head of the line. I think that violates every known principle of good manners. This is especially true because every cell phone comes with a service called voice mail. The key thing about voice mail is that it records a message for every interrupting call in temporal order. So taking a call during a meeting or conversation is not merely rude, it is really most deliberately rude. The message being conveyed is that all other conversations are more important than the one in process right now.

The reign of the mobile phone’s social superiority complex goes far beyond that. Countless times I have been in a meeting or conversation where other participants are constantly checking their phones. Is the discussion so boring that you must break up the monotony with the badminton scores from Vassar? Is the meeting content so unimportant that you need to check on your pork belly futures right now? Is your attention span so short that we need to add periodic recess periods so that you can fiddle with your gizmos? Or is this merely a technological substitute for the honored tradition of doodling? My answer is a resounding, “No.” When accessing unrelated information, one’s attention goes away entirely. There is a place for the electronic device during meetings, particularly when a question is raised that requires an immediate answer. I can look up the starting date for Daylight Savings Time while keeping an ear on the conversation. But that is different from wholesale and sustained dual attention. If you really need to be doing something during the meeting, please take notes.

The antisocial sovereignty of the cellular culture extends well beyond the workplace. Take my Saturday morning grocery shopping as an example. Yes I carry my cell phone with me and yes I will answer it if it rings. If it is anyone other than my wife (with a shopping list addition) or a call requiring more then fifteen seconds, I will take it outside the store or offer to call back. I presume that others around me are not interested in listening to half of an irrelevant conversation, nor do I wish to share my half with strangers. Yet invariably, there will be a bloke in the dog food aisle shoving Alpo into his cart with one hand while describing in revolting vividness the details of his Aunt Minnie’s gall bladder surgery. Two aisles over will be a woman trying to hold the freezer case door open with her knee wrestling a box of frozen lasagna out of the case with her right hand, cell phone clasped to her ear with her left hand, chattering on about the precise location on her boy friend’s anatomy where he got the My Little Pony tattoo. Follow them to the checkout lane and the conversations persist, failing to subside even when the checker needs to ask a question. The best the unfortunate clerk will receive is a scowl and a curt shake of the head.

Imagine that! The temerity of some people, interrupting a phone conversation in such a scurvy manner! It would be different if the phone had rung during a conversation between the clerk and the customer. That calls for an interruption, right? Wrong! Good manners do not work only one direction simply because technology is involved. My pappy done taught me that I should dance with the gal I brung, and I still believe the pan-applicable wisdom of his advice. If one is out in public, that is where you should be engaged. If one is in a meeting, that should be the focus. If one is already on a call, stay on the call until that interaction is complete. The person you are talking with right now is the most important person in the world, and deserving of your complete attention.

I’m not saying that virtual engagement is wrong. I am saying that the interruptions are. Sure there are exceptions. There can be family emergencies or one might take a call while waiting for an important call back. There are polite ways to handle those situations. Simply put, I object to the cell phone as an excuse for bad manners. Besides, why would one choose not to be fully engaged in the here and now? My wife chided me once because of my obstinate refusal to use the ATM, even when the bank is closed. “Honey,” I replied, “I know everyone at the bank and they know me. Why would I not wait until I could walk in and talk to them in person?” My Saturday grocery regime is enriched by casual conversations with the people I see every week as well as with total strangers. One might argue that such interactions are possible through technological media. I would agree, but would counter that the in-person experience is richer in the same way experiencing live music is better than a CD, no matter the quality of the sound system. The exchange is palpable.

I have often thought about how different Inferno might look if Dante Alighieri were alive today. I picture a circle of hell for the ill-mannered (positioned between limbo and lust) in which the contrapasso would be a phone call interrupted by a phone call interrupted by a phone call, and so on for eternity. A little much you think? Well maybe, but if you have the fortune (good or bad) to encounter me in person, please leave your cell phone in your pocket. I promise to do the same.

I can see that math is not your strong suit.
In business as in life, we have certain minimum expectations when it comes to the skill sets of the people we work with. I know I do. First, I expect a rudimentary capability to read and write in the language in which we have agreed to communicate. Second, I expect a secure grasp of the first ten counting numbers (i.e., 1, 2, 3, etc.). You do not need to be able to add them, divide them, or solve for x with them (although that is not such a bad idea). You merely need to be able to count with them, and be able to differentiate accurately between two rubber chickens and eight rubber chickens. I trust this is reasonable.

So given these two reasonable expectations, if one were to send an email to a colleague and pose three questions, how many answers should one anticipate in the subsequent response? Without presuming to solve for x, my answer is three: three questions result in three answers. Apparently my algebra is flawed. All too frequently, the response arrives with a single answer.

Years ago I assumed that this was due to a flaw in how I posed the questions. So I worked on simplifying the language, a practice to which most of you know I am opposed (see Dumb Down Steve). My effort was to no avail. Then it occurred to me that if I numbered the questions, it would be more obvious that there were in fact three questions, not merely one with other words tacked on as a linguistic filigree. This became a standard way for me to email multiple questions. It was no better. The answer-to-question ratio remained dismally low. I pondered the conundrum again. Then it struck me that merely numbering the questions might not have been a sufficient clue that more than one question was involved. After that I began adding the number of questions to the email subject in order to call out the fact even before the body of the email was viewed. It looks something like this: “3 QUESTIONS regarding the daily sales feed.” I used the numeral along with capital letters in order to make it stand out. When that failed to improve my hit percentage I despaired of understanding why all questions couldn’t be addressed in a single email. The best I could figure was that my initial premise about the first ten whole numbers was untrue. So I began asking only a single question per email. That only made matters worse, for in those cases where I routinely received two out of three, my hit ratio fell to one out of three.

I have given up looking for a solution. I accept the fact that I cannot change the behavior. Sure, you might put it all down to carelessness exacerbated by the fact that the recipient returned two text messages, took three phone calls, and checked Facebook while reading the message. So when did carelessness become a justification for bad manners? If I ask you three questions, answer three questions. “I don’t know,” is a perfectly valid answer. So is, “I can find out, but not until tomorrow.” “Go talk to Curly,” works too. I will even accept, “Go take a long walk off a short pier!” just so long as you have demonstrated to me that you have read every question I have asked and indicated for each one when or if I should expect an answer.

By now, you are no doubt beginning to see a pattern emerge, and it is not merely that this writer is a cranky old technophobe. Okay, I am old and cranky, but not a technophobe. Technology is a terrific tool for bringing people together. But while the “instant gratification” nature of it is enticing, it is causing wholesale erosion in the quality of our manners and our social interactions.   I am certainly not immune; I caught myself being guilty of the behavior in the preceding paragraph just the other day. And by the way, that was after I had written the first draft of this post. Clearly, there is much left to do in our battle against global rudeness. Perhaps we just need to slow down a bit and actually read text for comprehension. Perhaps it really is not necessary to act and respond faster than the speed of thought.

#####

Thus ends the second installment of The Manners Maven. Stay tuned. I will be back in two weeks with the final episode in this serial.

The Manners Maven

Manners_HeaderH. Kram Nevets here with my first episode of “The Manners Maven.” Today, I will opine on two common communication practices that violate the norms of both human courtesy and common sense. In most cases, these practices also reduce communication effectiveness and efficiency. This will be the first of a short series.

Technology is wonderful. One of its benefits is that it arms us with a plethora of communications media. In many ways, these media have improved our ability to share information back and forth between human beings. Notice that there are four components to this communication activity.

  • Share: the content does not reside with a single human being.
  • Information: the content has some practical importance that justifies sharing.
  • Back and forth: there is an implied interactivity, meaning a sender and a receiver, and most likely a responder.
  • Human beings: human beings (and nothing else) are the termini of the activity.

Further, there are two essential forms of communication activity. The first is informational: I have content that you need to know which does not require your response. The second is interactive: You have content that I need from you or that we need to discuss together. These basic precepts of communication are pretty fundamental. In fact, they are so fundamental that it seems almost inconceivable that our new communications media could make it complicated. The good news is that these media are not responsible for this complexity. People are responsible, most often in the form of bad practices. Let us take a look.

CC does NOT stand for “Create Chaos”
Email has been with us for a long time, and it confuses me why after more than two decades in regular use we still do not know how to use the medium appropriately. In particular, the CC function seems beyond the grasp of so many people in spite of the fact that it is probably the single most useful aspect of email.

For those of you not old enough to remember, CC stands for “carbon copy.” This derives from a time before computers when memos or letters were inscribed on actual pieces of paper using a device called a typewriter. In order to make multiple copies without having to re-type the memo several times (or resort to mimeograph), there was a practice whereby the typist would insert carbon paper between sheets of paper so that when the typewriter key contacted the top sheet, imprints would be made on the lower sheets as a result of the impact. This was true analog copying. The problem, of course, was that each subsequent copy lost fidelity such that one could only make a few such carbon copies of the original before they would become unreadable.

So imagine what an improvement email was when it first emerged. Not only could one interactively edit the message content, but one could also include any number of individuals in the communication. But that is where the problem lies. Released from the constraints on how many people can be “copied,” pandemonium reins. The abuse of CC falls into two extremes: “copy everyone” and “copy no one.”

The practitioners of “copy everyone” take the viewpoint that CC stands for “Cover (my/our) Cheeks.” So inevitably, instead of including the two other people to whom the message pertains in the email string, the miscreant copies those two along with everyone’s bosses, their bosses’ bosses, the help desk, security, Clyde in Accounting (because Clyde needs to be copied on everything), and Aunt Lizzie just because. So not only do we end up with a plethora of individuals sorting through truck loads of irrelevant email, inevitably someone totally tangential to the issue will chime in and create additional churn. This practice wastes people’s time and reduces efficiency. Consider the following email exchange. Why would a Vice President, Clyde, or any of the other ten unnecessary recipients need to follow it?

TO Moe: I found the issue. A variable was too short for one of the values.
TO Larry: Which procedure?
TO Moe: SP_UpdateDailySales.
TO Larry: Were the tables okay?
TO Moe: Yes, they all had the correct length, same as the source table.
TO Larry: Glad it was minor.
TO Moe: Same here. The fix will go live this afternoon.
TO Larry: Great. Thanks.

The issue might be important, but does anyone other than Moe and Larry really have the time or need to follow it at this level of detail? If there were twelve people on the distribution in addition to those two, then there were 96 unnecessary interruptions to the workday. There is a cost associated with that which mounts up quickly. Much more efficient would have been a status email from Larry once the issue had been resolved and the deployment confirmed.

The practitioners of “copy no one” interpret CC as meaning “Cursory Consciousness.” This individual routinely fails to notice that there are three (or more) active participants in the conversation and therefore only answers the one who just emailed. Unless the recipient is careful and responds using CC to include the now missing participants, the email string becomes divided. Divided email strings result in all manner of mayhem and misunderstanding.

I grant that the use of CC is not always straightforward, so here is a little piece of CC trivia you may need to know someday. If you are part of any public body (e.g., City Council, Arts Commission, School Board), you should never use CC (or reply all) with all your fellow members. By law, meetings of such bodies must be public meetings, with the place and time announced publically and in advance. Use of CC constitutes a legal quorum of your membership, and therefore an illegal meeting of the body. Interesting, no?

 

YOUR procrastination is not MY emergency
We are all wired in a variety of ways today. We have computers (email, chat), phones (voice, text), and more. In general, these devices are turned on and online most of the time. Consequently, at least in the business world, there is no reason for non-communication.

Let me make a very clear distinction, however, between non-communication and non-instant communication. There are two schools of thought on this. The first is that, because there are so many instant communication media, all communication should be instant. This same school of thought takes the viewpoint that multi-taskers are the most efficient workers.

I subscribe to the second school, which takes the viewpoint that multitasking is not only inefficient but also harmful. Recent studies suggest this. I try (not always successfully) to set aside several times each day for reviewing email and returning messages instead of monitoring them as they come in. When I have my head down writing or coding or working on a project, I want to have disruptive media turned off. The only exception is when I am expecting something timely or critical. The key, though, is to set aside regular break times to check messages. The last thing I want to do is hold someone up who needs a critical response from me.

Now enter Penny Procrastinator. Penny does neither.  She neither responds in the millisecond nor does she select key times throughout the day to respond to urgent or key requests. In fact, Penny waits to respond until the urgent becomes virtually impossible. This is not to say that she is offline. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sporadically throughout the day she will pop off urgent (if incomplete) requests to people throughout the enterprise.   Any attempts to receive clarification, though, are met with galactic silence. I usually get my call from Penny about 5:45 in the afternoon. Sometimes, it is later than that.

STEVE: Hello?
PENNY: Steven. Penny. Where are you?
STEVE: I’m at a restaurant having dinner with my wife. It’s 6:45 in the evening. It’s our wedding anniversary.
PENNY: I don’t see the promotions analysis for the fall season on my desk.
STEVE: Right. Didn’t you read my emails?
PENNY: No. I’ve been in meetings all day.
STEVE: Penny, I sent you an email yesterday evening asking when they were due and whether you wanted me to use the marketing data again or go back to using the sales data. Either way, it takes most of a day to complete the reports. I sent the email again at 8:00 this morning, an hour before your first meeting. I sent it again before noon. I even tried to find you in your office. And by the way, your voice mail is full on both your office line and your cell phone.
PENNY: Steven, I receive hundreds of emails every day. I have to focus on the important ones, like making certain that Larry was on top of yesterday’s computer glitch.
STEVE: As opposed to taking 30 seconds to make certain I had what I needed for your boss’ analysis?
PENNY: You aren’t from IT so I didn’t think you needed to be micromanaged. This needs to be on the CFO’s desk by 8:00 tomorrow morning. You are going to have to cut your evening short and get this to me in the next four hours. That way I can review it tonight and do any fluffing and folding I need to in the morning. Tonight, Steven. [click]

At this point, of course, our hapless hero finds himself between Scylla and Charybdis. If he doesn’t get Penny’s report to her, it could cost him his job. On the other hand, the political capital it is going to cost him in his marriage for doing so is likely to be enormous. I am not going to speculate on how Steven decided. Notice also that Penny still did not answer his question about the data source.

We all have a Penny or two in our lives. If your Penny is your boss, I am sorry for you. There is not much you can do but try. If your Penny is a colleague or a direct report, you have much more control in managing the situation. You probably have the ability to set boundaries for yourself and demonstrate consequences when those boundaries are transgressed.

If you are a Penny, shame on you. If you are self-aware enough to recognize that you are a Penny, double shame. There are only two words I can say to you. “Stop it.” No, you had better make that three words. “Stop it now!”

#####

I hope you have enjoyed this first edition of The Manners Maven. Stay tuned for my next assault on the antisocial aspects of technology, entitled Another Manners Maven, coming in about a fortnight.

 

Extend the conversation! Which technological bad manners peeve you the most? Do you think technology has simplified our lives or made them more complex?

 

Dumb Down Steve

Dumb_Down_HeaderWhen it happened again, I had to stop and ask, “Really?  I use too many big words?”  The complaint had come from a respected colleague who was reviewing a positioning document I was drafting.  The word in question was “inculcate,” but his criticism pertained to the entire document.  He admonished me to consult state guidelines on writing in a public forum.  This followed closely on the heels of another colleague having told me that if I wanted to be successful in my present role, that I needed to learn to write at the sixth grade level.

Frankly, I was stunned.  The main irony of the situation is that I was writing for the parents and the administration of a public school district, not for elementary school children. Therefore, my putative audience consisted of adult human beings, most of whom have completed a college degree, and a fair percentage of whom have advanced degrees.  The second irony occurred just a few days later when one member of that same presumed audience used the word “inculcate” (correctly, I might add) during a meeting.  Alas, neither of my critics was in the room at the time to hear it.

I have been stewing on this for several months now, attempting to come to grips with the concept that clear communication is tied somehow to simplified vocabulary.  English is an amazing language, when you come right down to it.  Because of centuries of wars and conquests, English has borrowed words from – or had words imposed upon it by – a plethora of other languages and language groups.  As the Canadian writer James Davis Nicoll observed, “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

As a consequence of all this procurement and acquisition, we have a rich palate of words in our language from which to choose when searching for a shade of meaning.  For instance, let us take the original word in question.  Once again, I will consult my trusty unabridged dictionary (Copyright © 1987 by Random House, Inc.).  in-cul-cate v.t., 1. to implant by repeated statement or admonition; teach persistently and earnestly 2. to cause or influence (someone) to accept an idea or feeling  The suggested sixth-grade alternative was the word “instill.”  in-still v.t., 1.  to infuse slowly or gradually into the mind or feelings; insinuate; inject 2. to put in drop by drop  As you can see from the dictionary definitions alone, these two words are only tangentially synonymous.  I was, in fact, after the more active or persistent meaning and I regret now having allowed myself to be talked into changing the word.

But this begs the question that my colleague’s criticism posed.  Ignoring for the moment the fact that the document was an internal positioning piece and not intended for broad consumption anyway, would the word instill have made my meaning substantially more clear to a broader range of potential readers?   I say that it would not and here is why.  As English speaking and reading individuals, we are taught at an early age to identify word meaning from context as a first step when we encounter unfamiliar vocabulary.  Consider this sentence:  “The nature of these ground rules inculcates a spirit of both trust and respect among the participants.” I submit that the average adult human being with a tenth-grade education would be able to read the sentence and intuit the meaning of the word inculcate (if it were unfamiliar) while grasping the meaning of the entire sentence as well. And by the way, at the same time that we are teaching that sixth grader to draw meaning from context, we are also teaching that same student how to use a dictionary.

This is not to say that I go out of my way to use difficult terminology.  Like most writers, I am very selective about the words I choose and I am fortunate to have a reasonably large vocabulary at my command.  The initial word I select is, more often than not, the ideal one for the situation.  It is almost instinctive.  However, sometimes I struggle for days to identify the precise expression I need in order to capture a particular nuance or shade of meaning.  The more words I have at my command, the more facile that process becomes.

As it turns out, there is a great deal of debate concerning the size of the average English-speaking adult’s active vocabulary.  Part of this debate involves the taxonomies that group similar words (i.e., a base or “headword,” its inflected forms, and its closely related derived forms). An example might be the word “attract.”  That would be the headword for inflected forms such as “attracts” or “attracted.”  Closely related derived forms might be “attractive” or “attractions.”  All of these form a word family.  Current research suggests that the active vocabulary for the average English-speaking adult is somewhere between 17,000 and 21,000 word families.  Keep in mind that one’s active vocabulary comprises those words we can recall more or less automatically and use at will.  One’s passive vocabulary consists of the words we can understand or derive from context when someone else uses them.  Naturally, our passive vocabulary contains more word families than our active vocabulary.

There is substantial research to support the point of view that vocabulary size has an effect on many aspects of our cognitive existence (consult this article for links to the research).  Certainly a strong vocabulary facilitates verbal and written expression, and extends our ability to communicate nuanced ideas. Similarly, our linguistic vocabulary is our thinking vocabulary.  But I still come back to the original question; does simplified vocabulary aid in communication or does it place further limits on effective linguistic interaction?  Where is that sweet spot between effective writing and effective communication?  Are they not one and the same?

Well, no and yes.  There are obvious use cases where the written word needs to be as intelligible to the low literacy reader as to the fully literate reader.  Medical instructions and general health information are two such examples.  This could easily be a life and death situation so both ease of immediate understanding and lack of ambiguity are paramount.  These are cases where shades of meaning are not only undesired, but also potentially dangerous.  I maintain, however, that this is not the case in normal business writing, or even in writing for constituencies such as ordinary public policy communication.  In these cases, there may be many important shades and textures to the meanings that need to be expressed which could be accessed through a person’s passive vocabulary and/or from context.  As a last resort, there is still the dictionary.  I submit that the writer does not have sole responsibility for comprehension.

For these reasons, I am not yet convinced that simplification of vocabulary necessarily leads to stronger and sharper communication. Rather, I think that simplification of the presentation structure does more to heighten comprehension than dumbing down the lexicon.  If the formal structure of the piece is tight and well ordered, follows a logical flow, and presents sufficient explanation of key or unfamiliar concepts, then most adults should be capable of adequate and reasonable comprehension.  Striving to limit the sentence complexity and paragraph length also improves clarity. The writer then supports this foundation with lists (numbered and bulleted) and diagrams.  After all, visual display, when appropriately used, is a powerful means of communication.  Finally, having someone else review the piece helps immensely to identify ambiguous phrases or concepts.

And here is the surprising thing, the kicker if you will.  In spite of my seemingly large and reputedly recondite vocabulary, my writing does not test all that high.  If you believe these things, my Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score for this article (unfinished) is 10.0. That is the low end of US tenth-grade level. (An essay that my 14-year-old daughter turned in recently scored 11.7.  I am trying not to take this too personally, by the way.)  My Flesch Reading Ease score for this article (unfinished) is 52.6, which puts me on a par with Time magazine for comprehensibility.  I am satisfied with that.  I truly did not want to be rubbing shoulders with the consumers of The Readers Digest.  By the way, if you are at all interested in these Flesch-Kincaid fripperies, most of you have access to them if you are using Microsoft Word.  For a complete explanation of what they mean and how they work, I refer you to this article in Wikipedia.

The bottom line is that I value a wide-ranging and expressive vocabulary in both my own writing and in what I read.  I love nothing better than when H.P. Lovecraft (my preferred “recreational” author) sends me scampering to the dictionary to look up an unfamiliar word, rife with nuance and effulgent with evocation.  Likewise, I am stimulated every time Stuart Kauffman (current read) challenges me to understand yet another “ism” or “ology” that will be central to his argument.  Every day seems an opportunity to acquire new tools of either general or specialized use, and my personal lexicon remains one of my most cherished kits.  How I use that vocabulary to get my point across to my audience is both my challenge and my craft.  I will continue to refine it, but I will not dumb it down.

How do you see the role of vocabulary in the art of communication?  What techniques do you employ to enforce clarity in your written work?

By the way, here are Steve’s final understandability assessment results:

  • Flesch Reading Ease score:  51.3
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score:  10.3
  • Count of distinct words in this article:  661

Dialectic

Dialectic_HeaderI am no diplomat.  I have no formal training in conflict resolution, nor do I possess any great skill at it.  In fact, I prefer to avoid controversy altogether.  I find it messy and annoying and unproductive.  It also tends to bring out the worst in me.  Nevertheless, few of us can realistically avoid conflict and how we address it when we encounter it is key to the outcome.

I find myself in the role of facilitator among several stakeholder groups between which enormous tensions have developed over the past decade.  There is nothing quite like having to learn on the job, and nothing has prepared me for this challenge.  The good news is that there is leadership in each of these stakeholder groups that acknowledges the tensions and is willing to sit at a table and discuss them.  It is a good process, not only because the barriers that inhibit trust are beginning to erode, but also because clear and transparent dialog has begun to illuminate and expose those touch points of friction between the players.  Is it any surprise that many of these touch points are semantic?

Such was the case at a recent meeting.  But let me first clarify the circumstances and put them in perspective so that they will neither be misunderstood nor over interpreted.  This, in fact, is one of our key challenges, as I will shortly demonstrate.  I am working on behalf of a small alternative school that is part of a local public school district.  The key stakeholder groups are the parents, the faculty, the administration, and the School Board.  The situation is complex not just because of the personal tensions that have arisen over the years, but also because of increasingly rigid legislation affecting this type of school.  But there are no bad guys involved.  Almost everyone is reasonable and rational.  Certainly everyone wants to participate in and ensure the delivery of high quality education for our children.

Now, back to our meeting.  The participants included the district Superintendent, the school Principal, myself, and another member of the Parent-Teacher Organization Board. After some initial discussion on the meeting topic, we digressed into an unusually frank conversation about the misunderstandings we are all encountering. At one point, the Superintendent turned to me and said, “Steve, you keep referring to Gail [not her real name] as a teacher.  In my world, the word teacher refers to a professional educator with a Washington State teaching certification.  But with those words just out of my mouth, I also recognize that Socrates was one of the greatest teachers on the planet and never held a certification from anywhere.  Do you see my dilemma?”

I saw it instantly.  It was another major “Aha!” moment for me.  Here was a simple word with a public meaning that all English-speaking people understand.  Teacher: a person who teaches, instructs, or educates.  But now there was also a specialized or guild meaning if you will.  Teacher: a person who has been certified by a public authority according to official criteria as being qualified to instruct or educate.  The guild member, of course, sees the term in the latter context, that is, as a title or designation that affords them the distinction from those that are not certificated.  Teacher becomes an entitled title, almost like Doctor or Professor.  And irrespective of the profound absurdity of it in the end – after all, when was the last time you met a piano teacher who was certificated? – this is one clear source of emotional misunderstanding.  Gail might be Socrates incarnate, but to the guild member she is not a teacher and that guild member might be angry because others bestow Gail with that title unfairly.  Conversely, the layperson is using the public meaning of the word teacher and misunderstands the guild member’s emotion and might interpret it as animosity toward Gail.

This is not an isolated example, nor is it confined to the world of education. I ran across the same thing in the Business Intelligence world a couple of years back.  While working on a project for a client, a colleague on the team continually referred to the “data store” at the back end of his analytic environment as a data warehouse.  Now, most of us in the business, when referring to the term data warehouse, are referring to extremely large data stores, usually at an enterprise level, based on either the Inmon or Kimball approach, and containing multiple subject areas.  And although there are probably as many definitions for data warehouse as there are BI practitioners, for the sake of argument let us have this stand as the public understanding. Nevertheless, my colleague used the term data warehouse for something I understood to be a data mart and at first it confused me.  It was only after a difficult (and not unemotional) conversation that I realized he was using the term in a more specialized way, one that was peculiar to specialists of that analytic environment.  This was a guild meaning for data warehouse.  Unfortunately, his use of the term brought the client’s data architecture group into a near frothing rage over who had authorized a couple of consultants to implement another enterprise data warehouse.  Egos were calmed once the semantic disconnect had been cleared up.

Being able to recognize the semantic disconnect allows us the opportunity to design mitigation strategies.  But it is not really that simple.  While we would all like to think of ourselves as reasonable rational people, the reality is that we each have our personal cul-de-sacs of unreasonable irrationality.  The challenge is getting us to come to the table and willingly shine light inside them.  Not everyone is that open.  And we cannot just insist that we all use one of those meanings.  So what is the answer?

As I mentioned above, I am learning this role on the job.  Consequently, I cannot present here a collection of bullet points representing some leading practice or another.  And as I have discussed in these pages, a great deal of what I do comes from my experience.  I also gather enlightenment from friends, colleagues, and other professional resources.  So what I am proposing here is a course of action as yet untried.  Perhaps I’ll blog the results in a couple of months.  Here are the proposed strategies:

  • Continue to be on the lookout for semantic disconnect between guild and public meanings of words in common use by the stakeholder groups.
  • Become sensitive to these semantic disconnects and considerate of the respective points of view without becoming hostage to either.
  • Examine the clarity and transparency of all communication be it written or oral, and strive to make it as open and respectful as possible.  Be consistent and honest in all communication.
  • Actively seek advocates within each stakeholder group with whom the semantic disconnects (as well as the associated misunderstandings) can be exposed and discussed.  Brainstorm with this advocate on mitigation strategies.
  • Design and facilitate forums in which the stakeholder groups can come together and participate in exercises that execute these mitigation strategies.

Perhaps it should not have been as much of a surprise as it was.  It is common sense that we often have different meanings for the same word.  I just never expected this level of disconnect on a common word that most of us have used all our lives.  The most interesting – and for that matter, astonishing – aspect of this phenomenon is that it appears to drive an almost irrational interpretation of a person’s motives.  Disconnect over this one word seems to engender subconsciously an adversarial condition across the stakeholder groups.  Because the guild member does not recognize the non-guild practitioner as one of them, the public finds what the guild member says easy to interpret as a personal attack.  Conversely, the guild member can easily interpret otherwise commonplace actions or words as a threat.  If these are all reasonable, rational adults, then clearly much of this is happening at the unconscious level.

At the end of the day, the solution lies in people coming together and engaging in reasoned discourse about their differences.  If this involves just a few people, then an informal forum with little formal structure is possible.  For large numbers with multiple stakeholder groups, a more formal process needs to be facilitated that helps to set aside the emotional baggage that can impede understanding.  Reason and process are key success factors, along with clear and transparent communication.  We must allow ourselves the opportunity to ask questions – many, many questions – of others and ourselves, and to be honest about the answers.  It is in this dialectic approach that the path to truth and alignment is to be found.  And now if you don’t mind, I think I will pass regarding that drink offer and just get to work.

Do you have any other examples of common terms that have both a public and a guild meaning?  Can you offer me any additional strategies for mitigating semantic disconnect?

Memory is Expensive

Memory_Header

Now and again, one needs to step away from the practicalities of work, consulting, travel and running a business to celebrate something utterly wonderful and unexpected.  What I am going to tell you about is a living, breathing organism that moves along the road of life in the direction of the Twilight Zone, but not in the manner in which Rod Serling wrote. It is a source of awe and of good, of amusement and surprise.  It returns value in a myriad of ways.  And while I doubt that it is unique, I suspect that it takes a unique set of factors for something like this to flourish. Those factors are in evidence here.

As many of you know, I now hail from a small community on the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington.  And while my wife and I have been coming here off and on for nearly thirty-five years, we only settled here fourteen months ago.  In a small community, that makes us newcomers and to a great extent, still outsiders.  That does not mean that folks are not cordial.   Quite the contrary is true.  If I am out walking the dog, I need to be prepared to wave to every passing vehicle because the folks inside will be waving to me.  If I step into the bank to make a deposit, I need to allow time not for a line of people ahead of me, but for a line of conversations.  The pace here is different, some would say slower.  But it is also more personal and it takes time to really build those personal relationships.  Does that sound like one of my main themes?

As part of my local networking, I joined the Sequim and Dungeness Valley Chamber of Commerce.  After all, while there may not be much Business Intelligence work here right now, I pay a business tax like everyone else and there will eventually be local clients.  Besides, it is always good to be networking, right?  Not long after joining, I was perusing the membership directory and came across the Sequim PC Users Group (SPCUG).  I went to the web site and it looked pretty interesting so I parted with twenty-five dollars for the membership fee and signed up.  The next day, Tom (the President of SPCUG) called me to welcome me to the group and tell me about what they do.  That evening, I had a call from Steve, another one of their members.  Like I said, this is a small community.  Folks talk.

Essentially, SPCUG is a not for profit organization that collects and refurbishes old computers, which they then donate to a variety of places including senior centers, disadvantaged families, low income seniors, and the like.  They also help out at the Sequim Senior Center with computer training and equipment maintenance, and offer a series of Saturday classes at Sequim High School.  In the past, they’ve helped agencies like the Boys & Girls Club, Sequim School District, North Olympic Foster Parents Association and more.  These folks do a lot for the community.

The most astounding aspect of SPCUG is the bi-weekly Monday morning breakfast meeting at Ely’s Café.  The meeting officially begins at 9:00 but if you want a seat at the table, you need to be there by 8:30.  The meetings I have attended so far have exceeded capacity.  The PC Outlaws (officially the planning committee but it seems to encompass everyone) consists of the most amazing confabulation of retired folks I have ever come across.  It is mostly men, but there is at least one intrepid retired businesswoman who is a regular.  And while I myself am pushing sixty, I am the youth in knickers at that gathering.  The mean age seems to be mid to late seventies.  But hold on to your hats and glasses, folks, this is where the magic really happens.

The agenda opens with reports from what they call the Tech Shop, where the computer refurbishments take place. This is followed by reports from the Special Projects Teams.  Then the fun really begins.  Steve (who moderates the meetings) sends out an advanced copy of the agenda with links for us to pre-read.  Here is a sample of topics from a couple of past meetings (with the links).

This is just a sampling.  Where the discussions go from these raw agenda points is even more extraordinary.  These folks are all tech savvy; most are much more so than I.  The privacy search engine topic meandered into a discussion of the Tor network.  (I now have DuckDuckGo as my default search engine on my Linux Mint VM, along with a Tor network connection.)  The XP retirement agenda point evolved into a discussion of the relative merits of Ubuntu versus Mint, with excellent points being made on both sides. During the course of the BitTorrent discussion, Vuze (a BitTorrent client) came up.  At that point, Dick chimed in with a completely lucid technical description of how Vuze works.  “Are you saying that you are a BitTorrent user, Dick?” asked Steve.  “No, I’m saying that I’m a Vuze user,” responded Dick.  By the way, Dick was born in 1920.  You do the math.

During one of the discussions, someone asserted that “memory is expensive.” And while this was not his intended meaning, it struck me at the time what a fitting tag line it is for this group and the value it delivers on so many levels.  Memory is expensive, both to attain and to retain.  It requires deliberate effort.  Consider the following:

  • Memory retained:  These are people who clearly remember their own roots and are now remembering to give back to the community. They devote many hours of their time each week to these pursuits.
  • Memory created:  It takes effort to create memories, so ponder the impact on the children at the Boys and Girls Club and in the Sequim School District of the computer equipment and training that they receive as a result of SPCUG. The club’s efforts make it possible for another generation of children to have its own seminal experiences, hopefully to be thankfully recalled later in life.
  • Memory nurtured:  Most important, SPCUG activities are keeping its members own memories sharp, slowing immeasurably their passage on the twilight road.  They are not just doing, they are learning and applying new things every day. That is what is most impressive of all.

I mentioned earlier that SPCUG might be the product of a unique set of factors.  Sequim is a small community making it easy to find others with shared interests. There is also a higher than average proportion of retirees here, many of whom chose to move from other parts of the country to share the high quality of life (the mountains, the ocean, the light, and the clean air).  And they are generally well educated, have been successful in life, and have a strong sense of value.  Somehow, the group seems eminently bespoke for Sequim.

It strikes me that the habit of staying engaged in both activity and learning are not new to the members of SPCUG. Rather, it seems to be the extension of a habit already ingrained that keeps them out ahead of the pack.  They are certainly out ahead of me in so many ways.  While I blogged about Internet security (Here’s Looking at You, Kid) on June 3, coincidentally just before the NSA data collection began making headlines, I had no knowledge of privacy search engines or Tor.  Nor had I concerned myself with data encryption.  And what about BitTorrent?  I think I may have used it once about five years ago. More than a couple sets of eyebrows went up when I confessed that I did not use it.

I used to think that the best way to stay sharp was to hang out with younger people who are working on the “bleeding” edge.  SPCUG has turned that thinking on its head.  What they have taught me is that I need to be on, and stay on, the bleeding edge myself.  That is the high price of memory:  memory retained, memory created, and memory nurtured.

So my hat is off to SPCUG.  You have inspired me, motivated me, and invigorated me.  You have also written this blog post for me.  And for any of my readers who should happen to get out this way, I hope you will join me for breakfast at Ely’s some alternate Monday morning.  I guarantee it will do you a world of good.

So what inspirational story do you wish to celebrate?  What do you do to keep your memory sharp?

The Grammar Nag

DogEgg2

Look.  I am no saint when it comes to use and abuse of the English language.  I have been known to split the occasional infinitive.  After all of these years, I am still appalled at how often I catch myself writing in the passive voice.  And I can’t spell to save my life, although that has improved with practice.  Nevertheless, I take no comfort in the fact that many of my colleagues abuse our language far worse than I do, and over the years I have kept a list of the most egregious offenses.  Ladies and gentlemen, I have been promising this rant for a while, now.  Fasten your seat belts.

To begin with, I will let you in on a little secret.  I didn’t begin life as a technology geek, nor do I have a business degree of any kind.  I am in actuality a classical music geek with a mortgage.  Yes, I hide it pretty well.  My appreciation for writing well, and for the specificity of the language, grew out of my first quarter in graduate school.  We were all required to begin the program with a course entitled “Methods of Musical Research.” Dr. Glixon, a wiry little bespectacled scholar from Princeton, taught the seminar and over the course of thirteen weeks, we wrote thirteen full-scale term papers.  When the first paper came back, there was so much red on every desk that the classroom resembled the sacking of Troy.  It was a difficult quarter, but somehow Dr. Glixon in his quiet, smiling way beat and drilled the ability to construct a proper paragraph into every one of us.

As consultants and BI practitioners, we all write and speak a lot.  It is difficult enough to avoid some of the clownish jargon that springs up all about us.  It just can’t be helped some days.  But the core elements of the language – what words actually mean and the basic principles of grammar that we all should have learned in school – are things we should use better than we do.  Without further ado, here is the Grammar Nag’s list of top offenses.

“Our firm is platform agnostic.”

This is the one that makes me want to knock people upside the head with a vegetable.  The word agnostic is NOT NOT NOT a synonym for the word neutral.  Per Wikipedia:  “Agnosticism is the view that the existence or non-existence of any deity is unknown and possibly unknowable…Agnosticism can be defined in various ways, and is sometimes used to indicate doubt or a skeptical approach to questions.”  So every time some idiot declares that he is “software agnostic,” I see the ghost of Jacob Marley rising from the frosty gloom asking “Why do you doubt your software?”   This is just the wholesale misuse of a word with a very specific meaning and it needs to stop.  Not only is it momentarily confusing for people who actually know what the word means, it really is a sign of utter sloppiness.  Our firm is platform ignorant?

“Our data is in the warehouse.”

It still sounds incorrect as I write it, although I’m enough of a realist to know that I am spitting into the wind on this one.  Technically speaking, the word data is the plural of the word datum.  Therefore, “The data are in the data warehouse” and “The datum for that metric is incorrect” are the correct forms of usage.  It is what I grew up with and I believe that the distinction adds more vividness and clarity to the meaning.  However, it is also true that at least since my Random House Unabridged Dictionary was published in 1987, the word data is also singular.  “Today, DATA is used in English both as a plural noun meaning “facts or pieces of information” (These data are described more fully elsewhere) and as a singular mass noun meaning “information” (Not much data is available on flood control in Brazil).”  I think it is sad that over time, usage blurs the clarity of the language.  It is also worth pointing out that in Business Intelligence, we make a distinction between data and information.  The data are the raw facts.  Information is what they mean.

“Email the document to Tom and I.”

The confusion between I and me is one we all should have had straight by middle school.  I is the first person singular subject pronoun.  Me is an object pronoun.  The subject pronoun is used when it is the subject of the sentence and does not change when there is more than one person involved.  “I went to the store.”  “Tom and I went to the store.”  The object pronoun is used when it is the entity on which the subject is acting.  “Email the document to me.”  “Email the document to Tom and me.”  It is the conjunction that confuses people, but the presence of a conjunction does not change the part of speech.  You would not say, “Email the document to I,” so there is no reason to get this wrong.  None whatsoever. To be sure, the same is true when using the predicate nominative form. “It is I,” is technically more correct than “It is me,” and “If you were I” is more correct than “If you were me.”   But American speakers rarely use the correct forms in either speech or writing because they sound stilted and require a monocle and silk hat.  Many grammarians concede that the rule regarding the predicate nominative is changing.

“No less than three of my proofreaders are on vacation.”

I wrote that sentence myself.  Yesterday.  I wrote those very words in an email to a colleague. I was asking her to proofread some copy.  I hit send.  I did.  Five minutes later I was standing in the kitchen pouring myself a cup of coffee when the dart hit me squarely between the eyes.  I literally dashed back to the computer to correct it and resend.  In formal usage, the word fewer is used in relation to discretely quantifiable nouns (counting nouns).  “There are fewer birds on the clothesline today.”  The word less is used with singular or “mass” nouns.  “There is less flour in this canister.”  However, one could also say, “There are fewer cups of flour in this canister.”  It becomes challenging in more complex constructions where one would probably not replace “at least ten items” with “at fewest ten items.”  This is where prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar collide.  For me, the distinction between less and fewer is clear, and adds sharper definition to speech and writing.  And it is true.  No fewer than three of my regular proofreaders are on vacation.

“The book was laying on the table.”

This is another one that nobody should ever get wrong.  And nobody will who reads on.  First, here is the rule.  The verb to lie is an intransitive verb meaning to rest or recline.  “The book was lying on the table.” The verb to lay is a transitive verb meaning to put or place.  A transitive verb requires a direct object, something being acted upon.  “John laid the book on the table.”  The direct object (the book) must be there.  Some confusion might occur because the word lay is also a past tense of to lie, but only if you aren’t paying attention.  “The book lay on the table yesterday.”  The same rule works for the verbs to sit and to set, by the way.  To set is transitive and requires an object.  So here is the best way to remember this.  “Hey Steve.  Your crazy dog is laying in the street again.”  “Well now, Toby, is that a fact?  What’s he laying this time?  It’s not eggs is it?”  “Naw, it could be bricks but I ain’t certain.”

It feels so good to get this off my chest at last. I am self aware enough to know that I do my share to help other bloggers write their articles.  But particularly in the BI world where we are trying to find precision in the information we extract from our data, should we not also be seeking the same precision and definition in how we communicate about this information?  Granted that writing is not everyone’s strong suit, but shouldn’t we be reasonably knowledgeable about the meaning of the words we use and aspire to accuracy in how we use them?  Clarity and accuracy is what we are all about.  Or, as my last boss is wont to say, “If you can’t tie out your own travel expense report, why would I trust you to tie out my client’s data?”

I come from a point of view that believes that everything I lay my hand to – from the most abstruse data reconciliation to sweeping the floor – should be stamped with the same standard of quality.  That is a topic for another day.  Suffice it to say that the better we speak and write, the more our clients and colleagues will value and trust what we say and do. So beware.  The Grammar Nag is listening and may be back.  Oh, and one last thing.  Thank you, Dr. Glixon.

Do you have a grammar pet peeve or “favorite” example of word abuse? How about a choice new piece of jargon?