Mental Metadata

by Alicorn 2 min read30th Mar 201135 comments


Once when I was probably eleven-ish, I asked a friend of my family who had just gotten a new car, "What kind of car is it?"  He began to tell me the make and model and the interesting features of this particular vehicle.

I interrupted him, and said, "I meant, what color is it?"

This is just a mildly cute story about how little I knew or cared about cars at age eleven-ish, but it uncovers a communication issue that applies to people who are not eleven-ish anymore.  I should have just asked in the first place what color the car was, since that was what I wanted to know.  Asking what kind it was allowed a misunderstanding to creep into the interaction, since "kind" doesn't have a fixed meaning as regards cars and my interlocutor attached his own understanding of the question when he interpreted it.  I didn't correctly pin down the metadata of my question, so he didn't know what kind of answer I was looking for.

Garbled or missing metadata can cost time and cause fights, so I have developed a number of techniques to mitigate or eliminate it, both incoming and outgoing.  They're pretty simple to apply, and bringing them to bear early is very instrumentally useful both for social and informational reasons.

Ask yourself what kind of answer you're looking for, then ask a question that calls for that kind of answer, or give an example of what would constitute a good answer to the person you're asking.  Examples of extensions/replacements for the question "What kind of house are you going to build?"

"Will it be, like, a cute suburban place with azaleas out front?"

"I bet you're going with a brick facade, am I right?"

"What square footage are you looking at, ballpark?"

For numerical inquiries that your interlocutor cannot seem to answer, pick one or more threshold numbers (surprisingly often, people who have "no idea" how to answer a numerical question can tell you whether the answer is greater or lesser than an arbitrary quantity).  Explain why you need the information.  Or ask for a related more-concrete detail that will give you an adequate estimate.  Examples of extensions/replacements for the question "How many people are coming to the party?"

"Is it more, or fewer, than 40 guests?"

"I'm just trying to figure out how many boxes of plastic forks to buy - they come in 50ct boxes, and it'd be better to have extra than to fall short if we have to guess."

"How many invites did you send out, and how many RSVPs did you get back, and what did they say?"

Make sure the definitions of key words are agreed upon so you don't miss connotations or implications that are eluding one or both of the persons in an exchange.  (You may need to agree to use a silly or even incoherent definition for something to forestall exasperating argument, especially if you are talking to people who believe in things like libertarian free will.  Then you can give your own concepts their own labels for the duration of the conversation.)  Examples of extension/replacements for the question, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?"

"What are you using "sound" to mean here...?  Okay, I've been using it differently, but we'll go with that.  I'm talking about this other thing which I'll call an alberzle..."
"I've been thinking about kirrenberry trees all day, sorry - they're a fictional plant that doesn't make noise even when people are listening - but I'm guessing that's not what you had in mind when you said tree."
"That's the sixth time you've brought up squirrels - oh, my bad.  I should've specified when I asked, I meant nothing with ears is around to hear it, I wasn't trying to specify humans."

Keep track of what kind of metadata your frequent associates natively use, so you can jump immediately to the correct information.  This will also let you work backwards, if someone's going on a chain of inferences you can't follow easily ("What?  I'm not talking about X at all.  Are you thinking of X because it shares a national origin with my topic Y?").  Examples of extensions/replacements for the question "Have you read this book?"

"You would have had my copy - it was blue, with a beat-up corner and the library jacket on?"
"It's The Placeholder by X. Ample.  Ample also wrote Exemplar, remember?"
"The main character finds a magical amulet called The Self-Explanatory Magical Amulet and he - the amulet - talks about himself in a faux-medieval dialect the whole book."

I'm sure this isn't an exhaustive list of workarounds for metadata problems.  What am I missing?