The Trouble with Labels

“The troubling thing about labels is that we very seldom have the exact same definitions for them,” Colin Wright writes in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. I am disappointed by how frequently we use labels without giving them much thought. Labels are a necessity and a way to convey a lot of information without having to provide extensive background and definitions for every little thing. Labels are also things we use to signal something about ourselves and they are also something we use to make fun of other people and groups to which we don’t belong. If you are not aware of the labels you use, you are not aware of how frequently you are using them for signaling or just how insulting labels can be to the people you label.

 

Wright continues, “as soon as you decide to watch for them, you realize how many labels we use in every discussion, even beyond the exploratory ones. But it’s worth the effort if you really want to learn, understand, and communicate clearly.” When we use labels haphazardly, we end up talking about different things from our communication partner. My concept of any given label is going to be different from your concept of that label, and even if our ideas are just a little off, what I am saying may not make any sense to you at all. Our conversation could devolve into an argument where we are each trying to argue that something is or is not something else, not realizing that we are both arguing with a different set of definitions for the thing we are arguing about.

 

Beyond just confusing conversation, my biggest fear of labels is that they will become subtle digs and insults at our communication partners. We may throw in a label here or there that we don’t think our interlocutor will recognize, but that will be recognized by other people in our social group. This allows us to make subtle insults at individuals or groups and allows us to talk behind someone’s back, insulting them in a way where we feel superior because they did not even realize that we insulted them. This is typical of the types of arguments we see online, and it is something that has the ability to absolutely destroy productive conversation. It can ruin opportunities to learn and it actively drives us away from becoming a more cohesive society. Recognizing when use labels in this way will help us to have more clear and constructive conversations, and if we can help other people recognize how they use labels, then we can begin to have more productive and rational discussions about the direction our society should move.

Will We Lose Conversations?

With the internet social media world we live in, you can always find the perfect niche community for your interests. I love podcasts and like geology and there is a perfect show for me: The Don’t Panic Geocast. I enjoy stoicism and thoughts about overcoming obstacles and I can literally find forums on Reddit all about Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way. In many other areas of my life I am able to find the perfect group of strangers online who share my interests, want to talk about the things I want to talk about, and share the same general worldview and background as me. This is fantastic for me personally and I am very comfortable listening to the geology podcast and reading about stoicism, but if I only engage in these communities then I risk losing my ability to communicate beyond these small niches.

 

Colin Wright describes his fears of a world where conversation becomes impossible in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. He writes, “One of the fundamental challenges we’ll face in the coming years, I think, will be figuring out how to have conversations … about anything and everything. How to have discussions about important things and relatively mundane things, and how we might have those conversations with a shared understanding that we’re trying to achieve the same thing, even if that might not immediately appear to be the case.”

 

The fear that Wright has is that we will become so accustomed to communicating within our own sub-communities that we won’t be able to have real conversations outside our groups. The words we use and the definitions we attach to those words will begin to shift and overtime will signify who is part of the group and who is not part of the group. Sometimes this will be obvious to both insiders and outsiders, but sometimes it won’t be obvious to either, and conversation will break down as each side fails to recognize that words are not being use in the same way. Similarly, certain things will become running jokes within a circle (like ice is a mineral in the Don’t Panic Geocast community) and we will make references that either intentionally or unintentionally leave other people out. This might help with bonding for our small group, but it can be alienating to people outside our group and can drive wedges further between our niche communities and the outside world.

 

If we end up in a world where we become so enclosed within our niche communities that we can’t have any real conversations beyond them, then we face a lot of negative consequences as a country and planet. Pragmatically working to solve problems may take a back seat to trying to enhance the status of ones community, or ones place within the community. Shared meaning could break down, preventing us from having real discussions about real values and priorities. If we cannot come together and step beyond our niche communities then we won’t be able to avoid identity politics and we will feel more isolated in the real world even if we feel deep connections with our online communities.

The Trouble of Probability

“Most people, it should be noted, are terrible at offhandedly understanding, or even estimating, probability,” Colin Wright writes in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Without specific training, human beings generally seem to be pretty bad at statistics and statistical thinking, as Wright states. Our ability to estimate how frequently something should occur or the relative risk of something is not as good as one would think considering the power of our brain to recognize patterns and help us evolve to the point where we are as a species.

 

We really didn’t evolve to be good at numbers. Humans evolved in small tribes that likely numbered 150 people or less. As hunters and gatherers we likely just didn’t deal with numbers that were so large that we needed complex statistics to understand them. The largest numbers we probably really focused on were 10 or 20 and we have enough fingers and toes to help us there. As our societies began to take shape and grow, numbers and statistics still were not the deciding things that determined whether ones genes were passed on or not. Story telling has always had a much greater influence on the human mind than statistics.

 

For most of us, the fact that we are bad at statistics probably doesn’t matter too much. We can invest in mutual funds or index funds, have someone else tell us how much money should be taken from our paycheck automatically, and we will be fine. But if we want to engage with public policy, if we want to do the most good we can do, and if we want to approach the world rationally and leave it better than we found it, we must not only understand a base level of statistics, we must be able to understand how little statistical grounding most people have for their decisions. Convincing someone to make donations to help indigent people is much easier if you can focus on a single individual with a compassionate story who needs help. Overwhelming a person with statistics regarding the number of people who need aid will not convince anyone that their action is necessary. Giving your neighbor or uncle a dizzying array of data points around climate change and global warming is probably less effective than focusing on a single whale that washes up with plastic bags in its stomach, less effective than a story about coral bleaching along the Great Barrier Reef, and less valuable than a visual story of storms destroying the house of someone who looks like your neighbor or uncle. We must work to understand science and statistics ourselves, and we must take what we learn in dry numerically dense academic papers and craft a story that shows people exactly what they will lose if they do not act, or how they can be a hero if they do take the action we encourage.

Definitions

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright has a chapter about freedom versus security. The ideas we have for freedom and security run against each other and are sometimes very contradictory. One of the things that Wright described, which really stood out to me, about the conflicts between freedom and security is the difference in the definitions and the terms we attach to our ideas of freedom and security. Wright wrote, “What makes this discussion, and many discussions, all the more difficult to have is that opposing sides are often using different definitions of the words in question, and resultantly we might think we’re talking about the same thing, when in fact we’re merely speaking past each other.”

 

What really stood out about his idea is that it applies in almost any public debate we have. Across the United States we use a lot of different words to say and mean the same thing. Our country has a lot of variation in what words we use depending on where we find ourselves and what the culture has grasped onto. In our political lives, we do the same thing based on our political beliefs. Someone who is in favor of expanding access to abortion services is likely to use the term fetus while someone who does not believe that anyone should ever have an abortion is more likely to say unborn child or baby. In the abortion debate, it is clear to see that both sides are using different words to stir up different emotional responses.

 

In other cases, our varying use of definitions in political contexts can be more subtle, nuanced, and confusing. A lot of internet sub-cultures exist and have specific ways of referring to groups of people, to the positive outcomes they want to see, or the negative things that are going on around them. In some ways using the right definition for an uncommon word is unnecessary but shows that you are part of the inside crowd and that you are on the right side (or at least understand one side) of the discussion. If you are not aware of these definitions, there is a good chance you could use a term in a way that seems reasonable to you, but that reveals that you don’t know what the inside group is talking about and that you don’t actually think they way they do about a given issue.

 

When we have conversations, we should work to be very clear about the definitions we use for specific terms. We should be aware of times when our definition of a word is an insider’s definition from a subgroup of the population. We might be using a definition that is only used by some Twitter group, a definition that is only used by people who have studied a topic in college, or a definition that is only used by either Republicans or Democrats. For us to be effective communicators and to make sure we don’t isolate people around us (or ourselves) we have to recognize how these definitions work and how certain words will either bring people into our discussion by signaling we are part of their tribe, or will push people away by signaling that we don’t agree with their beliefs.

Nuances in What We Say and Mean

I really enjoy language. I listen to a podcast about language, Lexicon Valley, I studied Spanish for my undergraduate degree, and I’m currently learning sign language. There are a lot of ways to say the things that are on our mind, and a lot of nuance in how we say the things we want to communicate.

 

I find this fascinating, but it can cause real challenges for us in our relationships with others. Colin Wright in his book Some Thoughts About Relationships describes communication as “the mortar that holds together whatever structure you decide to build.” It is our communication which establishes and maintains our relationships with others and gives them meaning. The defining characteristics of our relationships can often be understood by the language and words we use. How we say something, the particular meaning we pull from a word, and the vocabulary we use all signify something about the relationships we have with others.

 

Complicating this is the nuance running through our communication. I’m in Reno, Nevada, and the way we speak is heavily influenced by trends in the San Francisco Bay Area. We speak a little bit differently than my fellow Nevadans in Las Vegas, who are more influenced by the language of Los Angeles. In his book, Wright encourages us to remember that there are many differences and nuances in the way we speak and use words. This is important to remember because these small nuances can change the meaning and definitions we attach to what people say and how we understand ourselves relative to others. He writes,

 

“Remember that everyone speaks a different language, and not just the English, Spanish, Japanese sense of the word. The vocabularies we use for things are different from person to person, and as such, incredibly important words like ‘relationship’ and ‘love’ and even ‘communication’ will mean something slightly, or vastly, different to each individual who uses them.”

 

For me, this is a reminder that I don’t know everything. I don’t know what is happening in another person’s head and I can never be perfectly sure that we are using the same word or phrase in the same way. We might be using the same word, but have a slightly different sense of what that word means. It is important that we are clear and concise with our speech and that we listen intently and ask clarifying questions when others are speaking so that we can better understand them and be more sure of the meaning we attach to what is said. This can lead to better alignment within a relationship, strengthening its overall ties and bonds.

The Need Behind Requests

Something interesting in a lot of human communication is how frequently we address something without saying anything explicit about the the thing we are addressing. We talk about one topic but are often implicitly or sneakily also talking about another thing. The front conversation is what we are actually saying and the literal words of our speech, but there is also a hidden back conversation taking place that others may or may not be aware of.

 

This type of communication can be very helpful for humans. We can hint at something or subtly reference a topic that may be seen as taboo in some cultures, groups, or settings. The way that people react to these quick and hidden references tells us a lot about who we are around and helps us shape the conversations we have, even if we are not consciously aware of the messages or even of other people’s reactions. Michael Bungay Stanier addresses one form of this hidden background conversation in his book The Coaching Habit when he looks at the way we use requests in the work place.

 

We often try to soften our conversation when giving people orders or requesting that people complete specific tasks. Saying “do this now” or “complete this by this date and time” can sometimes be too forceful or inappropriate depending on the work culture, group dynamics, and team member roles. One way, but certainly not the only way, we soften our speech is by using the word “want”. Bungay Stanier looks at “want” construction in his book and helps the reader think through what is being said in the background when we say something like “I want you to complete this by December 2nd.” His careful analysis is useful if our goal is to be more clear with our own communication in explaining what work needs to be done by a set deadline.

 

First, Bungay Stanier encourages us to look behind what is being said to try to understand why types of needs are driving the conversation. He writes, “You can see that recognizing the need gives you a better understanding of how you might address the want. And there’s a flip side to that as well. As you frame your own request for what you want, see if you can articulate what the need is behind the request.”

 

When someone above you in the organization says, “I would like to have that report done by the 2nd” he is asking you to complete something because he has some type of need behind the report. That underlying need is greater than the individual report, but your work helps support his need. In this way, the sub conversation is “we have an important meeting on the 4th, and we really need to show that we are well prepared going into that meeting. The data in the report is key to us having all the information we need, and we need to finish the report in time to give us a chance to review and prep for the meeting on the 4th.” Being aware of the why and understanding the sub-context helps us better address the actual request. We can take this awareness and use it in our own conversations so that we are making sure that the why behind our requests is not hidden and lost in a sub-conversation (although if your why behind a request is “to make me look good”, you may want to rethink your actions and initial request).

A Father-Daughter Science Connection

Amanda Gefter’s book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is about her journey with her father through the world of physics and how she crash landed in a career as a science journalist. Early on in the book she describes how she and her father connected through science, with a quick passage that I think many of us can relate to. “As a dogmatically skeptical teenager, I had my own Zen-like practice of zoning out when adults offered me advice, but when it came to my father I listened—maybe because when he spoke it sounded less like an authoritarian command and more like the confession of a secret. It is all an illusion. Now here he was speaking in the same quietly intense tone, leaning in so as not to let the other diners overhear, asking me how I’d define nothing.”

 

Gefter’s quote about her dad really resonates with me. We all want to be included in important discussions and we all want to feel that we are on the inside of a secret. A way to connect with people and spark their interest in science and challenging subjects, is to pose challenging and almost paradoxical questions in a way that encourages wild answers and gives the other person a chance to be part of the secret inside team trying to find the best possible answer. I listen to a lot of science podcasts, and many of the best engage with their audience in this way. They may not be in the same room washing dishes with me or in the car driving down the freeway with me, but they still manage to pose a question which sounds simple, but requires deep and complex thought. Personally I think the public in general needs to be more engaged with science and scientific thinking, but in particular, this is something we need to instill in our children from a young age. Gefter, as an teenage outsider, was inspired by her father’s questions about science in a way that she was not inspired by her actual classes at school.

 

The way we speak with kids and teenagers is important. I do not have kids, but I did coach cross country and track and field as I worked through my undergraduate degree, and I hope to find a way to get back to working with high school students in the future. Gefter’s quote shows us the importance of how we craft messages to teenagers. The content alone is not enough to inspire teenagers and if we have a lesson or a message that we think is crucial for them, we must find a way to brand that message so that it is not an authoritarian command driving them to zone out and ignore us. We must take our important messages and lessons and communicate them in a way that is interesting and in a way that allows teenagers to investigate for themselves and begin to build their own abilities to reason with the world. Gefter’s father was a radiologist, and as a medically trained scientist he had the authority to speak on various science topics, but he did not just throw answers at his daughter like knives shooting through her doubt to tear her faulty reasoning apart, he invited her to offer answers and theories, and then invited her to work through her thoughts with him.

 

Whether we speak with teenagers, toddlers, or grown adults, I think the message holds. Invite curiosity and place your ego in the back seat. Do not challenge your audience with difficult scientific questions just to demonstrate your superior knowledge of a subject, but rather use challenging questions to show the complexity and vast beauty of unknown science. Invite your listener to be part of the secret team trying to think through the challenges of our time.

The Words We Use

Have you ever had a disagreement with someone only to find out that you both agree on the same concept or principle, but you just don’t agree on semantics and vocabulary definitions? Author Colin Wright looked at this phenomenon within relationships in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. Wright has three rules regarding communication in relationships and his first rule is to keep in mind how other people use vocabulary different.

My college undergraduate major was Spanish, and I took linguistic classes in English and Spanish, so I am always drawn to conversations and discussions surrounding the use of language to express complex ideas with random sounds organized together. I love the different uses of language across a nation or across multiple nations, so Wright’s first rule of relationship communication is a natural fit for me. In describing his rule he writes, “The vocabularies we use for things are different from person to person, and as such, incredibly important words like “relationship” and “love” and even “communication” will mean something slightly, or vastly different to each individual who uses them.”

It is not often that we discuss how language is used with the people in our lives, and in daily conversation we certainly don’t often dive into questions regarding the different meanings we all have with the same set of words. Wright’s description of vocabulary means that we are living in an unavoidable world of telephone, where the words can be the same, but what has been said is different from person to person.

Being honest and open in relationships requires strong communication practices that can be inhibited when we are not discussing the same idea with the same concepts arising from the same meaning in the vocabulary we use. It is worth being more aware of one’s own vocabulary to better recognize situations where communication is taking place, but miscommunication is obstructing the meaning of what is being said.

Connecting with Technology

It is easy to become wrapped up in the criticisms and shortcoming of technology, especially when criticizing technology also allows us to criticize younger generations and place our age cohort on a shining pedestal, but we should also consider how technology is at times neither good nor bad, but just different. Author Colin Wright provides a unique view into the use of technology for connection and communication in his book, Come Back Frayed.  He writes about the freedom that technology provides him and how it allows him to live a life that previously was not possible.

 

“I can be whomever I want because there’s no one to regulate me, to passively or intentionally box me in, to pressure me into becoming an archetype of myself.
    In real life, the line is not so clear.”

 

His quote comes after he explains the freedom granted to him by technology and his life style. The technology allows him to produce content from anywhere on the planet and to sell his work across the globe. It allows him to get away from typical work schedules, and allows him to have any office anywhere he has decent internet connections. His life is no longer dictated by demands that many people face like mortgages, regular job hours, or a commute. Without a family Wright is also able to explore and live without expectations from others allowing his work to take the shape that he wants wherever on the globe he lives.

 

On its own, the above paragraph is not very insightful. After having read much of Wrights work however, additional possibilities  provided to Wright by technology begin to jump out. He describes himself as a major introvert, preferring time to himself over time with others. Before technology he probably could have managed his time on his own well, but he certainly could not have had the same experiences and freedoms. When we criticize technology for allowing people to communicate and interact without ever truly meeting and knowing each other, we are ultimately just criticizing people for not communicating the way we want them to or expect ourselves to communicate. For those who would struggle without technology, there is a real power in the communicative possibilities provided. Perhaps these individuals would have adjusted and still found success in the pre-internet communication world, but we should recognize the new opportunities it provides to interact in the world and be active and engaged human beings despite shy tendencies.

Exchanging Ideas with Others

“Today, I’m of the opinion that if you want to reach someone, to really communicate in a language they understand and trust, you have to be more flexible.” Colin Wright expresses this idea early in his book Come Back Frayed to introduce some of the changes he has experienced in the mediums we use to communicate in the 21st century.

 

Wright’s book is an exploration of his time spent living in the Philippines, detailing how he has learned to adjust to challenging climates, new cultures, and new demands on his time as an author connected to the world in a sea of evolving media. “There was a time when people who watched videos online were a mystery to me, and I was content to write words I hoped to someday convince someone to read. There was a time when I felt my writing, vocabulary encoded with twenty-six bit alphabetic iconography, was the sole practical and relevant mechanism I had of presenting and exchanging ideas with others.”

 

Together his quotes show the varied nature of communication today, and the importance of learning to reach people through a variety of channels and formats. My blog started as simply a means for me to return to my reading and to think more deeply about passages that initially stood out to me, and so I never thought of trying to reach others and amass an audience. But communicating with others is something I enjoy to do and intend to make part of my future career. Learning to use and understand different formats of media will help me not just send a message to other people, but to understand others in a more profound way.

 

What I truly enjoy about the quotes above from Wright, is that his goal is not to reach more people through new technology just to drive his content and sell people more stuff. Wright’s goal is to actually exchange ideas with other people. I am not good at social media and dislike the quickness with which a lot of our thinking and decision making is done today, but the tools we have certainly do allow us to exchange new ideas in new manners.

 

I think there are areas where individuals can change their habits of consumption, and groups can change their methods of delivering ideas to increase knowledge and help improve perceptions and relationships across society.

 

I am studying toward a Masters in Public Administration through the Political Science Department at the University of Nevada, but one certainly does not need to study politics to see that the general public is distrustful of technocratic knowledge delivered from policy think-tanks considered out of touch with our mainstream population. Better understanding of how we can use our technology as individuals to find helpful information and avoid information silos can reduce this resentment, but at the same time, a better understanding of the ways people communicate today will help academics, policy researchers, and people in government administration better share their ideas, thoughts, challenges, and perspectives with the general public in a way that can build new foundations of trust.

 

Like Wright, the goal must be to further develop the exchange of information and to develop greater knowledge on the end of the person delivering the message as well as the person consuming the message. A driving goal of increased profits would ultimately lead Wright to failure, but a mission of flexible learning will open new perspectives to lead to true development. This idea is true for Wright, and may be true for agencies, companies, researchers, and others who want their thoughts to have a greater impact on the planet.