Words Mean Different Stuff?

Back in my masters program one of my professors made a point about definitions. He challenged us to come up with a definition for the word ‘table’. It was a simple task that we all finished in five minutes or less. A lot of our definitions agreed, at least partially, and yet our professor was able to shoot down each and every definition. Twelve graduate students, all literate and intelligent and none of us had a ‘perfect’ definition for a comparatively simple physical object. “Now,” our professor asked, “how do you define anger, or pain, or love?”

Flash forward several years and several thousand miles. My wife accepted a friends offer to do a jewelry ‘party’ (sale) at the house. By the end I was deeply annoyed with the friend, who I usually held in fairly high esteem. The problem? Several times she referred  to herself and other sales people as Jewelers. I’m sorry gang, but they weren’t. I have a very specific definition of a jeweler, a person who is an expert in setting gems and finishing jewelry. My definition comes from experience. I make Jewelry and set stones, but I don’t consider myself a jeweler. I’m not that good! I know and have worked with a number of jewelry artists, silversmiths, goldsmiths, mixed metal artists and sculptors. None of them would say that they rise to the Jeweler skill level for setting (even though they set stones). I have even known a few real Jewelers.

To me Jeweler means an individual with a specific set of skills. My wife’s friend was good at picking jewelery but I don’t think she has ever set a stone. So, by my definition she didn’t qualify and was kind of offensive in that she was claiming a title she didn’t deserve.

The thing is, she wasn’t intentionally insulting the skills of jewelers and the Jewelry community. The company she was with was using a different definition (I still say it’s a bad one…). They were seeing a ‘jeweler’ as someone who sells jewelry. She was saying what they taught her to say.

These examples show at least part of the cause of a lot of arguments. Both parties are using the same word but the meanings are different. This can sneak in in a number of places, for example: “Do the dishes”; “Leave at 5:00”; or “Meet at the fountain”. All three are simple but can get you into real trouble with friends, family or spouses.

The solution?  Try asking what the other person means (“When you say meet at the fountain do you mean this one or that one”; “Does leave at 5:00 mean start getting ready or be heading out the door?”).

Stopping to do a definition check can change the direction of a disagreement or even cure it. There are people who will say “but I don’t want to look stupid.” You can help control that by how you word things. Adding a phrase like “Just to make sure”, isn’t going to make you look stupid. It’s more likely to make you look like the one smart enough to recognize there may be a communication issue. It also makes you look like the person who is caring enough to make sure there is understanding. Both of those earn you points.

Even the worst case scenario has positives. Ok, so you shifted the disagreement to what the definition is… that is more resolvable than using the same word to mean two different things and not knowing it.

In fact, if you can come to an agreement on the definition: it increases your likability, credibility, leadership mojo, and might just convert someone to your way of thinking, product, group, etc. Making sure what the words mean and agreeing can be a win.

Just remember patience and persuasion, if you’re too pushy you’re likely to make people fight against your definition (of course if you’re dealing with someone who just likes to argue you could try getting them to argue your side!).

Disagreements happen. They are part of life. It’s a heck of a lot easier to resolve them if you know what you’re actually disagreeing about; and than means knowing what the words mean for every one involved.

That’s it for this time,

Till next time have a great week (and thank you for not asking me to define definition!)

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