Words and phrases are interesting things. Each represents a package of ideas and associations, instantly unwrapped the moment we encounter them. If I say, “She stood in a cold, dark, damp basement on a winter day, with only a bit of gray, overcast sky visible through small windows around the perimeter; the rhythm of ice rain hitting the panes of glass as if it were tin the only sound in the otherwise empty house”, your brain likely began constructing the space in your mind. Without even realizing it, you might have pictured old, wooden stairs leading down to cinderblock walls. You might have had an idea of whether or not there was a scent in the air. You oriented the room a certain way and developed a blueprint. You likely assigned a height, weight, age, nationality, language, and skin color to the woman. You even decided which clothes were on her. Was she wearing a sweatshirt? Blue jeans? The answer depends on all sorts of lightning-quick assumptions and preconceptions stored away in your memory banks.
In most conditions, this is a wonderful efficiency tool. There are two conditions under which that efficiency can lead to highly problematic outcomes, including increased conflict and misunderstanding. This manifests everywhere from the political arena to corporate marketing decisions, family fights to dissolved friendships.
1. Learn to Focus on the Practical Reality of the Situation, Ignoring the Terminology
When a concept has become synonymous with a term, there is something in human nature that makes a lot of folks forget what the thing itself is. Instead, it is replaced with a general abstraction that makes it easier for things like tribalism to pop up because people get invested in the terminology. Take just three illustrations from everyday life:
- There is no such thing as “the cloud”. It doesn’t actually exist. There is someone else’s computer, in a physical location you can’t access, which is in the hands of people you don’t know. You might think that is a good or bad thing based on your own personal values and risk calculations. By being aware of it, you can make a better informed decision.
- There is no such thing as “gun control”. It doesn’t actually exist. There is gun concentration in the hands of government agents. You might think that is a good or bad thing based on your own personal values and risk calculations. By being aware of it, you can make a better informed decision.
- There is no such thing as a “stock market index”. It doesn’t actually exist. There is a list of rules that determine which individual stocks get bought at specific weightings. You might think that is a good or bad thing based on your own personal values and risk calculations. By being aware of it, you can make a better informed decision.
By focusing on the reality of the underlying situation, you can better assess the dangers, rewards, shortfalls, strengths, and weaknesses. Whenever you’re confronted with terminology or jargon, ask yourself, “What is actually happening? What do the words mean in terms of real-world action or condition?” It’s a tool that can help you spot things like the importance of changes in the S&P methodology on your own because it forces the focus from the concept to the specifics of execution.
2. Learn to Standardize Definitions of Words and Concepts When Having a Discussion
Think of a word or phrase. If you’ve ever studied linguistics or cultural nuances, you know it is highly probable the people around you aren’t necessarily using the words the same way you are. This happens not just from person to person and family to family, but from nation to nation as well. Knowing that can be a huge advantage.
Consider “friend”. The way its equivalent is used in a country like Germany is very different than the way its equivalent is used in a country like Brazil. Some use it to describe anyone who is a casual acquaintance or with whom they spend a lot of time. Others reserve it for those with whom they share an emotional intimacy, even if they speak to the person less often than an acquaintance.
Consider “God”. Several years ago, I found myself surrounded by a group of devoutly religious Midwesterners from different denominational traditions, spanning a fairly large socio-demographic range. In the middle of the conversation on the role of religion in politics, my curiosity was piqued because I had a suspicion. I politely interrupted and asked them to indulge me for a moment. I asked each of them to raise their hand if they believed God existed. Nearly all did. I then asked them to write down, on a piece of paper without discussing it with anyone else, their definition of the word “God”.
Pens down, papers collected, practically none of them defined the word or concept the same way. The answers included things like:
- God is whatever or whomever created mankind. Even if He, Himself, had a creator or came from somewhere else, that doesn’t matter because He is still God to us.
- God is the ultimate creator. Even if mankind were seeded biologically by a race of advanced, intelligent extraterrestrials as part of a biological experiment, it wouldn’t matter. He is the one who brought everything into existence in the very beginning. He’s the source.
- God is whatever gave man spirit. Even if we evolved, the moment man became man and was given a soul, which might be around 50,000 years ago when the human brain suddenly leapt forward evolutionarily, skull sizes changed, and other humanoids died out, He was the entity that elevated us and made us something else.
- God is Jesus Christ. If I died, I’d be sent to hell and tormented but because of Him taking my place, I can escape all of that and go live in eternal happiness.
- God is a word for the universe as a whole; the force that keeps everything together and that causes atoms to arrange themselves in replicating systems; that saying, “Leave hydrogen alone long enough and it begins to think about itself”. That’s God. It is everywhere. We are in it. It is around us.
- God is a word we use to describe phenomenon we don’t, yet, understand.
The result was shock. “Wait … you actually think …”, “You can’t possibly believe…?”. It was fascinating to listen to the half hour that followed because they just assumed the word they were using for this package of ideas – in this case, God – was the same between all of them. They never checked. They took it for granted.
If you doubt it, try it yourself. Often, people who grew up in the same household and attended the same religious institutions or houses of worship will come away with different definitions, never, actually, talking about it as it exists somewhere just below the surface of their conscious mind. Try it with other words or phrases, too.
- How do you define “Love”?
- What do the words, “I’m sorry” mean? When are they appropriate to use?
- What is “Poor”?
- What is “Rich”? Is it a given level of income? Net worth? Having to not work while earning enough to live the life you want? An absolute number?
- What is “Good?”
- What is “Successful?”
- What is “Cheating” in the context of a romantic relationship? (Interestingly, there seems to be a substantial gender divide that might be rooted in the biological way affection is expressed and interpreted. Women tend to look at an emotional connection as cheating – when an affair happens, the most common question is, “Do you love her?” – whereas men look at the physical act as cheating – when an affair happens, the most common question is, “Did you sleep with him?”.)
- What is a “Lie”? (For some people, it’s knowingly stating a factual inaccuracy. For others, it can include remaining silent and refusing to correct a misconception.)
The list goes on and on but the point remains: You can’t just plug in your own definitions when listening to others, you have to try and calibrate what it is they are actually saying, through the lens of their own worldview and past experience. Great speakers have long known this, utilizing code words to break through to certain demographics, knowing how they will resonate with a particular group. A lot of conflict resolution can be enhanced by figuring out where the real disagreement is.
A major upshot of clarifying words like this has to do with personal life strategy. It lets you avoid Benjamin Graham’s observation that, “Criterion based upon adjectives are necessarily ambiguous”. If you want to arrange your life, don’t say, “I want to be successful.” Define success. Give it tangible, specific, objective, measurable numbers or metrics. If financial, is it being in the top 20% of household income? The top 1%? Is it having 40+ hours a week of free time with no responsibilities? Is it being respected in your field? Is it establishing a food pantry and providing 10,000 free meals per year to homeless or low-income people in your community? Avoid the false comfort of imprecision whenever it can be avoided. Draw the bullseye on the canvas then shoot for it. That way, you’ll know whether you are succeeding or failing at what it is you sat out to do.
This discussion is closely related to the Culture Code mental model. If you’ve never read about it, do take the time. You’ll be glad you did.