How Precision Kills Communication

As writers, we feel precision is a good thing. Say what you mean! Pick exactly the right word! Don’t be vague!

But precision can be dangerous.

I was at a tech presentation recently. Someone in the audience asked the expert his opinion on a particular new technology. The questioner didn’t know much about it, so he wondered what the expert thought of it.

“What do you want to know about it?” said the expert. “Performance? Flexibility? Useability? Compatibility?”

What the questioner tried to explain, and what the expert never quite understood, is that he didn’t have a specific question about it. What he had was a huge gap in his knowledge about this new technology, which he quite reasonably hoped the expert could fill. But “tell me about this” is vague, and the expert demanded precision. And so their communication died.

Or maybe I’m talking to someone who wants to send me a file, and they ask if they can “download” it to me. Now, download means to pull a file from elsewhere to your own computer, so sending a file out is technically not downloading. Thus the precise answer to his question is very simple: no, you can’t download it to me. But obviously, the precise answer is not the correct answer. The correct answer is to disregard precision, guess the real meaning, and say “Yes, you can send it to me.”

Both my examples have been about computers, and that’s no coincidence. Computers are exquisitely precise, but they don’t do well with vagueness (although they’re getting better rapidly). Vagueness is largely a human virtue: the ability to think about something in a meaningful way, without tying it down to specific details.

But people who are good with computers often think like computers: good at precision, not so good at vagueness. They may be great at handling known unknowns, where the problem is well-defined, but they’re not so good at unknown unknowns, where the problem is that we don’t know what our problems are.

Naturally, there are plenty of people – in IT and elsewhere – who can walk in both worlds, using precision or vagueness appropriately as the situation demands. Because balance, of course, is the key. Too much vagueness is just as bad as too much precision. The great astronomer Carl Sagan was a master of this: his mind was precise enough to get a PhD in astrophysics, but flexible enough to explain the stars to the average person on TV.

Actually, Carl Sagan just rocked in general. If you haven’t seen Contact, check it out sometime.

Anyway. Yes. Precision, vagueness. (Crap, how do I end this? I don’t have a conclusion.)

Uh, yay for communicating!

oh man that was lame

um, uh



12 responses to “How Precision Kills Communication

  1. haha, Physics is the same way. Especially physics word problems, oh man don’t get me started on that. Because the problem that I ran into was that most of the people who have doctorates in Physics also don’t speak English as a first language. One can imagine the hijinks that followed. But I have also been a victim as well, one time I lost 33% of a test grade because I wrote implied voltage instead of applied voltage. UGH!

    • Surely all voltage is implied: it is not actually a physical thing we can sense; it exists only as the cause of effects witnessed.

      • Hah!
        Well if you couldn’t sense voltages then those electric fences would be awfully ineffective. Btw all subjects studied in physics are ‘physical’ things by definition I believe.

      • It has been a while since I studied physics so my recollection might be flawed. I thought voltage could only exist between two points rather than existing in a place separate from its surroundings, which would make it an interpretation of sense data rather than sense data itself.

      • Well Dave you are getting into Metaphysics. Technically everything we feel falls into the same category. For example the feel that something is solid comes from the bindings energy of the materials. We don’t ‘feel’ binding energy, but we feel something is solid. Thus when a charge flows through someone due to a voltage differential, one ‘feels’ that charge flow as an effect. So it can be said that you can sense a voltage. Just like you can feel gravity even though you really only feel the effects of gravity.

    • And even for native English-speakers, academia tends to have its own sad, watered-down, inflated and technical language. You want to just bitch-slap somebody like “PUT A VERB IN THERE!!”

      • That would depend on what part of academia you are in I would think. English students probably do pretty well one would think. And of course us physicist barely have to know how to spell our names.

      • Jimmy: It’s appealing to think that English majors will have some facility with the language, but that was not universally true when I was in college, particularly in the writing classes that I took. My professor used to tell us horror stories about some of the stories and poems he’d had submitted to him over the years.

        On the higher academic levels, a different problem can appear. I have a friend who’s an English professor with a PhD. Her writing is fine (it was fine when she was an undergrad also), but when she writes about writing I have no idea what she’s talking about. I expect most professional writers would be baffled also.

  2. Carl Sagan is a good reminder of Einstein’s quote: If you can’t say it simply, then you don’t understand it well enough” … I have been in the “download” situation in class with my students, I do require them to think and formulate the question well, asking exactly what they want to know, time is a commodity and vagueness is a black hole… So when I get a vague question and I can read between the lines what they are trying to say, I ask them: did you mean…? To which they answer: yeah, that! And even add: that’s what I said… Now that’s something that gets my nervous twitch going… Joking but it is exasperating šŸ™‚ read you soon, Alexandra

  3. It’s also important to consider what the person wants to know (as opposed to what was asked). For example, a friend of mine was speaking at a work-related event. A woman in the audience leaned over to her neighbor.

    “Wow, ” she said, “he’s cute. Does he have a girlfriend?”

    The literal and accurate answer would have been, “No,” but the really helpful answer was, “He doesn’t have a girlfriend, but he does have a wife, and she’s sitting right over there.”

    Agree about Contact, btw.

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