Words matter, and the words people choose really matter. The reasons and habits that underpin our language choices are complicated, can span decades right back to childhood, and I don’t pretend to understand much of what shapes or decides these things. Looking at my own language over a week would likely produce a summary of “too many dad jokes” and foundation of “watched too much of The Simpsons when he was 16”.
Even if we can’t understand every underlying reason of why people communicate the way they do, there is something we can do. Accept that the words people say are important and has true meaning to them, and respect them enough to use at least some of their language in response.
My own field of software development is a very technical field full of very specific meanings assigned to very specific words. It’s not unique industry in that regard, but it does feel like as a group we enjoy creating fancy terms for things. The word ‘database' for example has a very specific meaning. If you prefix and it becomes ‘relational database’ it has a new and more specific meaning. Each of us have spent years finely tuning our technical understanding of the many many concepts in software, because it enables effectively communicate to other software developers.
But let’s have a guess at how much that knowledge has helped me in communicating with non-software developers?
Do you know what a “database” means to anyone who isn’t in a software or IT field? Normally it refers to “that thing I click on where I type in all the information for the forms I need to fill out” or something similar. And that is a good thing.
If you are a software or technical person, imagine you are in a conversation with a person telling you about their life, their work and what they do. Then they start describing how they use this awesome database at work and how it lets them make these awesome reports. Have a guess at what is one of the most condescending and unhelpful replies might be?
Replying with a detailed explanation of what a database REALLY is, and how what they are talking about is ACTUALLY the user interface, probably as part of a web application and…..
You will be eloquent, you will be detailed, and you have delivered what might be the most concise and accurate description of modern databases and the systems that connect to them. At the end you will feel really good about yourself. You have just enlightened another person on the importance of using correct terminology when describing software, and how important it is to articulate what a relational database is and what it is not. They have learned cool new words like relational, database, storage, user interface, SQL, varchar and many others. The world is now a better place.
Except it isn’t. As soon as you do that, you’ve just stopped listening, and there’s a fair chance you’ll be seeing that glazed over look in their eyes that we are all too familiar with.
Most importantly - It was a missed opportunity to hear about how other people view the world, how they use the tools they use, what they like and don’t like, and how it feels to use them.
As software developers/engineers/whatever It is really important to share our passion for building high quality software that really help people, and all the details that go into it. It is a lot of fun. Technology is really fun. And sharing our passion is fun. But don’t do it at the expense of not listening to other people. Other people know a whole lot about using software.
It is very difficult to turn off that part of our brain that insists on being right. Often we tend towards correctness, exactness and finding the right solution. Accuracy matters when discussing software and the technology around it. However, not everyone lives in our industry. If we are flexible enough to recognise that cultures around the world have different meanings of words like biscuit or football, surely we can be flexible enough that others may have a different definition of things like ‘database’.
Take a chance and pause and listen to the people around you. It is worth taking a moment and really listening and learning from people in other industries, fields and life experience. Use the words they are using, and take the time to understand what they mean to them. Whether they are your friends, customers, business partners, colleagues. And the best part? They will feel heard and valued that someone took the time to genuinely listen and understand them.
Unless they are telling dad jokes. Then all bets are off.