Developer at large, expert typist, fungineer

Semantics/Empathy

People argue about words all the time. In the past two weeks, I’ve participated and watched as nerds unproductively tried to convince each other that they are incorrectly using the words bijection, hypermedia, and dependency injection. Nerds easily fall into this trap because many of us are fascinated by knowledge, sharing that knowledge, and teaching that knowledge.

Arguing about words is fun. Arguing about words is practically useless.

Semantics are good

Words are a tricky business. An overused, overloaded, or ambiguous word isn’t particularly useful. “Synergize”, “web-scale”, or “rockstar” are mush words that don’t convey much meaning anymore. It’s tempting to think that encouraging others to be judicious in their use of words and mind the specific context and meaning of their statements could move the needle in making the world better.

On the other hand, human interaction is fidgety. We all have differing experiences, so the way we think and feel about things can vary wildly. You might say “we should pivot our business”, remembering the time you did so and took the company in a much better direction. I might hear you say “pivot” and think about all the abuses of the word in startup discourse or all the companies that have “pivoted” and still failed. Even though we are thinking of the same definition of “pivot”, we are thinking different things.

Semantics are good for getting two people in the same mental ballpark. I can say “web framework” and expect you to know I’m not talking about dogs, tacos, coffee, or compilers. You and I may differ on what a web framework is and what it does, but at least we’re both thinking of things that help developers build web-based applications. We may not be talking about the same thing, but we’re close.

This is why I think strong semantics are interesting, but not a silver bullet. Very rarely have I solved a problem by applying stronger semantics to the words used in the discussion of the problem. Never have I solved a problem by telling someone they are using the wrong semantics and that they should correct themselves.

We can argue about words all we want, but it’s not getting us any closer to solving the real problem. The problem we started talking about before we decided to have a side argument on the meaning of a word.

Empathy is better.

Empathy is a better tool. When someone misuses a word, I stop myself and think, “OK, let’s allow that one to slide. What are they really trying to say?” Rarely does someone misuse a word on purpose. It’s more likely they know it in a different context; discovering that context and matching it to your own is how the conversation moves forward.

If you say “we need to pivot our web commerce company to a web framework consultancy”, I may not know precisely what you mean by “pivot”, “web framework”, or “consultancy” but I can get on the same page with you. You think we need to change directions and that some services-oriented business based on helping people build web applications is the way to move forward. Armed with that, I can ask you questions about why we need to change directions, what that web framework looks like, or how we would change ourselves to a services-oriented company. It’s not as important that you get the words right; it’s important that we find a way to talk about the same thing.

Words are fun, but what’s useful is to figure out what the other person is thinking or feeling and talk to that. Setting aside the tension of telling someone they’re wrong, it’s not productive. I’d rather talk about how we can make better programs or better understand our world than foible over the meanings of a few words.

Words are a lossy representation, they can’t possibly ever connote the full meaning and nuance of any idea of interesting size. Don’t get caught up in skirmishes about the marginally important details of semantics. Use words to show others what you’re thinking and guide them towards your understanding of the problem and a proposed solution.

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