On Exact Language

Posted on Apr 29, 2021

Growing up as a child to immigrant parents, my role was to play translator in conversations that required english. Transacting on behalf of my family trained me to pick up on the nuances of language, how to sound “American”, and how to leverage colloquialisms. While it was annoying to deal with all the forms, phone calls, and meetings, it taught me that inexact and ambiguous language is where inherent biases thrive. Sometimes the “best deal” at T-Mobile came with hidden overages and oftentimes, “a table for 4” would put you in corners or near kitchens. These instances taught me that speaking loudly, clearly, and, most importantly; exactly, increased my chances of getting what I wanted.

Part of getting into STEM was the allure that numbers can’t lie. There is a right answer and a wrong answer, your program either does the thing or not, it handles the load or it doesn’t. So when I went into the tech industry I was excited to see this objectivity in action.

Unfortunately, I learned that inexact language screws people in the tech industry as well. Early in my career, a female co-worker got passed up for a promotion due to not providing enough “impact” for the team. While she mentored a few of us, extended our organization’s core platform, and designed exciting new features, the manager did not find her “impact” large enough. Who did he think provided enough “impact”? The guy who broke the build multiple times, never delivered on-time, and happened to get beers with the manager every other week. Her advice to me: get the exact milestones for your promotion and most importantly: what “impact” you can plan for. The same power dynamics in the real-world apply at work, even in the tech industry.

And it’s not just promotions and titles; Basecamp recently announced changes about their company policy barring employees from discussing societal + political issue talk (Coinbase did so recently). What constitutes societal talk? Does talking about the unsupported essential workers count? Does talking about the Black Lives Matter protest you went to count? It would be difficult to have lived on the planet this last year and not hear about some of these things. While they won’t make an exhaustive list of what you should and shouldn’t say, you can be sure that these rules will be enforced arbitrarily and in a biased fashion. Those in power will get to play favorites and moderate based on their bias’. This will leave minority voices more likely to not say anything at all, while those with main-stream or historically appropriate views to speak their mind.

Ambiguous language screws minorities over when paying for stuff, when getting paid, and even with how they are supposed to talk at work, what do we do with this?

We create and demand more exact language from the organizations we are a part of: work, social, fitness, coop, whatever. Ambiguous values, rules, principles could benefit from exact language, at least so that you know what weirdos not to hang out with. As someone who has dealt with this throughout my life, I’ve learned that shifting to more exact language benefits everyone. Humans are relationship-driven; clear communication creates closer relationships, less ambiguity creates less overhead in understanding, and clearer intentions builds trust.