I do not think that word means what you think it means.

When Inigo says to Vizzini “I don’t think (that word) means what you think it means,” it’s possible that he’s making a remarkably insightful statement about both of them.

I’m an anthropologist both by education and inclination. I attended Macalester College in St. Paul MN, and I had the good fortune to study under Dave McCurdy. Dave’s one of the leading figures in ethnographic interviewing, which is an great tool for studying microcultures – groups of people who share a common language and understanding.

It’s probably useful to put microcultures in context.

I’m an American, so I’m part of that culture.
I’m a gamer, so I’m part of that subculture.
I played World of Warcraft, so I’m part of that microculture. Not that it’s particularly “micro.”

Microcultures can nest inside one another – to World of Warcraft players, there’s a notable difference between Alliance and Horde, for example, or between those in your guild and those outside it. They can be as small as a few people.

The thing about microcultures is that they’re defined primarily in terms of sharing a common language – not English or Spanish, but still full of meaning. An example: My wife and I were discussing a way to the word “Hudson.” We live in Minnesota, so she said “like Wisconsin.” I work in computer engineering, so I said “like the build server that Jenkins is branched from!” I knew what she meant, because we share the “from Minnesota” culture. She had no idea what I meant, because she isn’t part of the “computer engineering” culture.

We’re all part of many microcultures. Each of them adds layers of meaning to our lives, and we use words within those contexts to communicate efficiently with other people in the same microculture. When I remember to listen for the words that people use (nouns, verbs, adjectives – anything), and set aside my own understanding of those words, I can figure out what the people saying them mean here and now, instead of assuming that they mean the thing I would if I used them.

This is especially useful when you’re in a discussion with people who are embedded in different contexts that give them different sets of understandings for the words they’re using. My friend Michael Nygard has a presentation called Architecture Without an End State (which is eminently worth watching), in which he makes the point that different parts of an organization have different meanings and expectations for “customer.” Order Management thinks about those-who-have-orders, Marketing thinks about those-to-whom-we-market and Dotcom thinks of those-who-have-a-login. They’re all right, for their microculture context, but using the same word when crossing domain boundaries makes for confusion and anger. I’ve sat in far too many meetings with people getting shouty at one another about who gets to define data requirements for “customer” for one lifetime, and I bet I’m not done.

Sometimes (not always) I’ve been able to add value in these meetings by pointing out that we’re using the same word to mean different things, and trying to tease out the assumptions behind the words. If done early enough, this can defuse the argument over who “owns” the word in question in favor of an attempt to reach understanding, or an agreement to use a different word with less baggage.

So what’s my sage advice for you, dear reader? Listen. Ask yourself if the words you are hearing are being used to mean the things that you think they are. Because if they’re not, and you think they are, then you’re going to make mistakes.

3 thoughts on “I do not think that word means what you think it means.

  1. Keith Suderman

    Hmm – don’t see a simple “thumbs up” option, so…
    Well said, Kev. I’m going to remember this – I hope – next time I’m in a meeting like that.
    Jeez, I need to call you. Soon. soon…

    1. Kevin Matheny Post author

      Thanks – this is one of the best things I learned in college, and at times one of the hardest to remember.

  2. Rachael

    Suzette Heden-Elgin said in one of her linguistics books (I forget which, and I think she was quoting someone else) “Always assume that what someone is saying to you is true, it is your job to figure out how it is true to them.” Which seems related.


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