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Terms - the lost art of understanding

The purpose of terminology is to ease conversation and clarify understanding, but can often have the opposite effect. In this blog post, Chris Joe discusses why more thought should be put into the use of terms to increase understanding and reduce exclusion.

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I recently spoke at SilverStripe’s first NZ StripeCon event during the lightning talks session - where attendees are given the chance to make a short talk.  

I still wonder to this day why I got up and gave that talk. Regardless of why I did it, the message within the talk has turned out to resonate really well with a few people.

After hearing some of the feedback about my talk, I started compiling my thoughts properly (thanks Dani for the nudge) and this blog post is the result. Here is a slightly more thought out version of my lightning talk at StripeCon.

Are you a developer?
I am.
Have you spoken with a designer and did they understand what you said?
Did they always understand?
I have missed the target sometimes
Have you spoken with a project manager and did they understand what you said?
Did they always understand?
I shot in the opposite direction from the target a few times, maybe more

Terms are used everywhere, it’s an important aspect of many languages if not all of them.

Terms normally have implied assumptions to help people understand something quickly because the people involved have some context of what the term means.

However, terms can also be quite dangerous as sometimes a term comes with assumption baggage that could cause misunderstanding and sometimes unintentional offense.

It’s not always that extreme, sometimes the use of some terms may just leave someone in a discussion behind leaving them them feeling a bit insignificant.

Here’s a couple of examples of what I mean.

The bliss of learning

My little boy has just started talking, he knows a few words which he uses frequently to tell us what he wants to obtain.

A common term he uses is “bee” - which can mean a variety of things, such as the TV, the Teddy bear, an actual bee, his favourite blanket, the berries in the fridge, the black pencil and the red pen.

To him, it’s a term which makes perfect sense, “bee” is the term that the item is called. Thankfully he doesn’t get upset when we don’t understand and tries to use the term again until we understand - and we then tell him the term we use for that item instead.

Learning apple and books

The acronym syndrome

There are many… many acronyms floating around. Some make sense straight away to most people (LOL), some only make sense to specific groups of people (QT).

Take MVP for example:

  • In sports it’s known as “Most Valuable Player”
  • In product development it is “Minimum Viable Product”

Did you know it also meant “Multi-Value Projects” in some contexts I’ve worked in?

Sometimes, it’s important to take a step (or four) back to make sure everyone has the same understanding in a conversation and are able to participate where they see fit.

This also works the other way, if you feel you don’t understand a term used, speak up about it when you can and ask someone.

When I use the wrong term or mispronounce a word, I appreciate someone stepping in to correct me at the end of a discussion - it’s a good way to improve my vocabulary.

Did you know that many books have a glossary section just for explaining the important terms that were used. Nerdy note: When I was in university, I would sometimes read the glossary first before reading the content of a book, I’m also a fan of footnote explanations.

I don’t like telling people what to do, so when I gave the talk at StripeCon and writing this blog post my aim is to try open your eyes, to maybe think about giving some empathy to those involved and try to include them in conversations.

I strongly believe that it’s important to have mutual respect and dignity when interacting with people.

Everyone is different - with different backgrounds, different perspectives, different experiences and different skillsets. Including all these different people when they are involved, with such diversity, would surely help build a better result for your project.

So to conclude, the TLDR is the block above, and this question:

Do your colleagues and your clients have a mutual understanding with you?

Thanks for reading!


About the author
Christopher Joe

Chris is a senior developer at SilverStripe. He loves innovative ideas, especially in the web technologies space, and is constantly looking out for the next challenge. Currently working on his tan in the Javascript entangled space.

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