Mismatched Vocabularies

by Error1 min read21st Nov 201613 comments


Personal Blog

Sometimes I'll be speaking to someone and use an obscure word or concept they're unfamiliar with. There's a few different reactions, and, well, I understand mine and do not understand the ones that are not mine. I spent five minutes thinking about it, trying to model why people are crazy and the world is mad, and came up with these more-common reactions and my hypotheses:

  1. Google the unknown reference, get the definition or wikipedia summary, then respond ("understanding is necessary to communication and now I've learned something new").
  2. Ignore it and carry on the conversation as best possible anyway ("doesn't matter what it meant, I'm just here for the social contact").
  3. Get angry at the ostentatious erudition ("you have just made an implied status grab and I'm slapping you down").

If it's not obvious, #1 is my knee-jerk reaction to unknown references; #2 seems to be the way most people deal with it; and I have a lot of difficulty dealing with #3 even remotely charitabl--STOP.


I don't get to use a verbal justification of #1 and compare it to an evopsych historical-cause of #3. That's a type error, or something, and also hypocrisy: by making the comparison, I'm setting myself above those poor adaptation-executing sheep, i.e. I'm doing exactly what (I think) they're getting angry at me about. Despite my uncharitable framing, their implied complaint is absolutely correct!

This bothers me, and I suddenly don't trust my own perspective, so I'm farming it out: what's really going on here? What do #2 and #3 feel like from the inside, and what's the symmetric explanation of #1?

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I do #2 frequently, but it's with the assumption that I'll figure out what you meant from context.

My understanding of #3 is that it comes from a place of insecurity. Someone secure in their own intelligence, or at least of their own self-worth, will either ignore the unknown word/phrase/idea, ask about it, or look it up.

So from the inside, #3 feels something like: "Look, I know you're smart, but you don't have to rub it in, okay? I mean, just 'cause I don't know what 'selective pressures in tribal mechanics' are doesn't make me stupid."

My guess is that it feels as though the other person is using a higher level vocabulary on purpose, rather than incidentally; kind of the like the opposite of the fundamental attribution error. Instead of generalizing situation-specific behavior to personality (i.e. "Oh, he's not trying to make me feel stupid, that's just how he talks"), people assume that personality-specific behavior is situational (i.e. "he's talking like that just to confuse me").

Also, I think a lot of the reaction you're going to get out of someone when using a word or idea they don't know is going to depend upon your nonverbal signals. Are you saying it like you assume that they know it? I've had professors who talk about really complex subjects I didn't fully understand as though they were obvious, and that tended to make me feel dumb. I doubt they were doing it on purpose - to them it was obvious - but by paying a little bit more attention to the inferential distance between the two of us, they could have moderated their tones and body language a bit to convey something a little less disdainful, even if the disdain itself was accidental.

Lastly, when it comes to communication I tend to favor the direct approach. If at any point I think the other person doesn't understand what I'm saying, I try to back up and explain it better. Sometimes I just flat-out ask if they understood, and if not, try to explain it, all while emphasizing that it isn't a word/phrase/idea that I (or anyone) would expect them to know.

True or not, the above strategy has been effective for me in reducing confrontation when the scenario you're describing happens.

"Instead of generalizing situation-specific behavior to personality (i.e. "Oh, he's not trying to make me feel stupid, that's just how he talks"), people assume that personality-specific behavior is situational (i.e. "he's talking like that just to confuse me")."

Those aren't really mutually exclusive. "Talking like that just to confuse his listeners is just how he talks". It could be an attribution not of any specific malice, but generalized snootiness.

How about #4, interrupt the conversation and ask for your definition ("If you use weird words you can at least save me the work of looking it up").

Answer 1 is not always possible - it's possible when you're answering on IRC or Internet forum, but usually is not in real life conversation.

As for #3, it is sometimes justified - there are people out there who will use unnecessarily obscure words just to appear smarter/impress people, or who will voluntarily use unnecessarily complex language just to obfuscate the flaws of their reasoning.

You're right than #1 is (when available) nearly always the best reaction, and that the cases were #3 is true (unless you're speaking to someone trying to sell you homeopathy, or some politicians) are rare, but people having mis-calibrated heuristics is sadly a reality we have to deal with.

You've discovered anti-intellectualism. Now you just need to figure out what humanity should do about it.

Don't think I've done #3, but I imagine it feeling from the inside like this has buggerall to do with the issue and you're wasting my time.

I don't think there's anything wrong with comparing 1 and 3. Yes, Reaction 1 is defined by an ideal, Reaction 2 is defined by a goal, and Reaction 3 is defined by an evolutionary impulse (whatever that means), but that does not make these things incomparable. If you have a goal in mind, you can determine the relationship between these three Reactions to the goal, and you can hope to come up with some ordering of Reactions with respect to that goal. For example, if you want to judge these reactions in terms of how well they indicate an individual's strive towards a goal that the reactor would consider worthwhile, I'd argue that Reaction 3 is, with high likelihood, a stupid option.

Regarding your sudden doubt in your own perspective, the problem here is that you didn't define a goal. By not defining a goal, your implicit goal was allowed to become something you didn't understand, and the reasoning behind your judgement was allowed to become highly subjective and non-conveyable. You can fix this particular issue by making sure to always think of "goodness" and "badness" in relation to explicitly specified goals. The more general issue is that you don't have a basis for recognizing when you believe things are reasonably comparable. You can fix this more general issue by studying more math, specifically category theory.

Regarding your actual question, try redefining your three reactions in terms of each of the three properties you used to define them: reaction from ideal, reaction from goal, reaction from evolutionary impulse (whatever that means). Under what ideal is it correct to ignore the mismatch and carry on the conversation? (I think korin43 answered most of this question.) Under what ideal is it correct to display anger? Towards what ends is it good to Google the unknown reference before responding? Towards what ends is it good to get angry?

As a side note, I've never seen evolutionary anything used as a concrete justification for a phenomenon where it couldn't equally well be used to justify the lack of the same phenomenon. More often than not, I see it as an attempt to hand-wave away a complex behavior because thinking is hard.

#3 Can be decomposed into many parts. Most of them contingent on your relationship with the person, and your use of terminology.

As a sort of aside, being an effective communicator can depend on your understanding the other persons frame of reference, and working to not use terms they are unlikely to know. This often depends on specific social dynamics, but you can frame it like "In my field there is this concept XYZ, I'm sure you've heard of it, and blah blah." This way you give them the benefit of the doubt, but also give them a way to not feel bad as you note it's in your field. I know this might feel strange to do when you yourself never take stuff personally -- to that I can only offer sympathy.

...On the other hand, most complicated terminology or jargon often references a semi-complex phenomena. It's often not fair, at all, to expect others to know or follow it. Sometimes the person speaking uses it to give their argument an authoritative veneer, because the other person doesn't know or can't respond. If people get that impression they sometimes get angry.

Anyway, I'd encourage you to maybe be more empathetic towards other people in these instances. People often are 'crazy,' but it's best to assume they aren't until you've really, really, tried to see their model of the world.

for #3 feels like from the inside:

" This person just used a highly technical word/jargon I do not know, although it's not a status grab, its so fucking annoying that you would think that I would know that word. How could you be so smart and stupid at the same time? Of course I don't know that word, don't you have some sense of savoir faire to anticipate I might not know that word"?