The Unglamorous Need for….Semantics!

Communication – whether on social media or not – is all about exchanging ideas. What we often don’t think about, however, is that there is a “currency” involved – the currency of agreed-upon meanings attached to words.

Let’s say you walk into a convenience store. You pick up a bottle of Diet Coke and a donut. You pull out a green piece of paper that has a number on it – you insist that the number means 10 dollars, while the clerk says it means 5 dollars. Now what do we have? A stymied transaction. Both parties lose when the currency is non-standardized.

Semantics. Without definitions, we’re just wasting time and words, talking past each other. And that means we’re not communicating at all.

This came to mind today as I read this thought-provoking post by the duct-tape marketing guy, John Jantsch (It’s Time to Purge the Word Entrepreneur). Reading through the posts and comments, it’s clear that there are so many perceptions of what the term means or doesn’t mean, that it’s impossible to arrive at any resolution.

My entrepreneur is your small business owner is her tech start-up is his solopreneur is their…you get the picture. I don’t agree about purging the term, but I understand the frustration – when meanings are diluted or changed, it becomes difficult to exchange any ideas.

On Twitter, where context has to be sacrificed for 140 characters, the problem is compounded further. One of the biggest challenges I have discovered in moderating a Twitter chat is how much time and energy is expended with issues of semantics. There’s an awful lot of tweeting past one another as we “chat” starting with different understandings of terms.

This is one reason why political discourse can be so frustrating. What does “progressive” or “liberal” actually mean? How does one define “Tea Party”? These terms have such wildly divergent meanings depending on the standpoint of the speaker, that it seems impossible to carry on an intelligent and reasoned conversation. We are left with tossing pejorative grenades that may inflame, but cannot enlighten, without a shared agreement on meaning. And, yes, I’ve been guilty of that as well. Because I just assume that people carry around the same definitions in their head as I do. You’d think I would have learned something by now about that…(how do YOU define dense? :>)

Perhaps the person on the other end of the conversation is not in need of a hearing aid. Maybe we just need a dictionary on the table between us.

In order to disagree, we first have to agree – on what our words mean. I don’t have a good answer to this widespread dilemma, but perhaps as bloggers, we can be more careful up front to define the terms we’re going to use. Otherwise, our posts may become like so many trees falling in the forest, with no-one around to hear them. Because we’re all on different frequencies.

(Can’t resist linking to this post from Kevin Dugan – because the graphic says it all!)


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About Steve Woodruff
Steve Woodruff is a blogger, a Connection Agent, and a consultant in the pharma/healthcare industry. He specializes in helping people and companies make mutually beneficial connections.

11 Responses to The Unglamorous Need for….Semantics!

  1. Gavin Heaton says:

    I was in a workshop today where we were discussing this very topic!

    We were discussing the importance of being inclusive when beginning the strategy formulation process. While it is easy to engage only your close team and allies, my recommendation was to go wide and bring a wide variety of stakeholders into the process. If you achieve nothing else, you will at least have come to a shared vocabulary and context. That way you at least know what you are arguing about!

  2. Funny Steve I just had this conversation yesterday with a client , then last week with a colleague and now here you go…

    Hasn’t this always ben an issue though? Everyone has their own definition of what a word means to them?

    Something I learned working with Tony Robbins, when two people use the same word, but they have attached a different meaning, it will always lead to conflict in communication. It is no different in the digital world.

  3. Michael Turner says:

    Bob Kahn, who ran Xerox PARC during the years when it invented most of how we use computers today, once described his job as converting the constant arguments among his brilliant staff from Level 1 Disagreements to Level 2 Disagreements. A Level 1 was where two people disagreed, but didn’t yet understand each others’ point of view. A Level 2 was where they DID understand each others point of view, but still disagreed. In Kahn’s experience, once you got from Level 1 to 2, pretty soon you had … agreement. You didn’t even have to intervene further. It was perhaps seeing this phenomenon in action on a weekly basis that prompted Alan Kay to famously quip, “point of view is worth 80 IQ points.”

    But without consenting to a shared vocabulary, your chances of seeing the other point of view are pretty small. Since Bob Kahn was shepherding innovation in computer science, which is full of neologisms and nonstandard terminology, he had a lot of work to do. But I think this same fresh-word-salad mentality has since spilled over into business, where it’s sometimes a lot harder to semantic issues back to first principles. Once you start talking about business models instead of just plain old business, you start inventing vocabulary to track your new concepts. You won’t necessarily use the same words as others, even when you mean the same thing. And you might use the same words, but mean different things by them. Going back to the dictionary is a great way to dispel this kind of confusion – IF those you’re conversing with are game. Sometimes they aren’t – and you get labeled “pedantic” or worse, often enough by Humpty Dumpty hypocrites who are actually insisting on being pedantic themselves, just in their own idiosyncratic ways. Turf wars abound in corporate environments, and the territoriality is sometimes about semantic turf. It’s something to be wary of.

    • Alan Kay says:

      I think you mean “Bob Taylor” as the person “ran Xerox PARC during the years when it invented most of how we use computers today”.

      My quip came from something much deeper than your guess. It had to do with the incredible differences between (say) what has been accomplished in finding out about the world in the last 400 years compared to the previous 200,000. This was done by creatures with the same basic brains and raw abilities to think. But the POV of science, the POV of calculus, etc., has made us both look and be much smarter recently.

      And I didn’t specify the sign bit in my quote. It is quite possible to take a POV that will make you act 80 IQ points or more dumber (we see this every day in Washington DC).

      Best wishes,


      • Michael Turner says:

        Argh, yes I *did* mean Bob Taylor, sorry.

        And in future quotes, I will make that “[plus or minus] 80 IQ points.”

  4. This is definitely one of the biggest problems across social media, but in real life too! I can’t even count the number of times that I have had to pause a discussion to clarify what someone means by the word they are using (usually because they are using it incorrectly…). We all need a few more language lessons, I think!

  5. Pingback: Social Media: Trees and Forest « Connection Agent

  6. The semantic problem beggins in school, when children get used to hear and repeat lessons year after year without participating in the dialogue of updating definitions.

    Partially, it is a problem of properly hearing, thinking before talking…and last but not least, saying just what’s necessary to enphasize what we want to say..i.e. going to the point.

    Everyone can do something about it by just hearing more than talking and talking only what is necessary…letting silence be in-between … and keeping an open and generous mind in front of other opinions

    I like very much the coment: “In order to disagree we have first to agree”

    A very well done post. Thank you very much!

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