Ambiguity is a greater social lubricant than alcohol. If we all understood each other precisely all the time, we’d probably be in trouble. However, ambiguity bothers some of us more than others. Somewhere along the spectrum considered “within normal limits” lie people like me who prefer, nay require, more precision than most people are comfortable with.
Case in point, suppose I said, “I’ll take a half-dozen bagels, please.” If the counterperson were to say, “Six? Okay, six bagels coming right up!” what is the appropriate response?:
(a) Yes, please.
(b) I said, a “half-dozen,” not “six.”
(c) Any damn fool knows that a “half-dozen” is “six.”
(d) I thought I got one free with each half-dozen, so don’t I get seven altogether?
Answer (a) is the most socially acceptable. Answer (b) might qualify me for an insane asylum. Answer (c) might be what I’m thinking, but we all need to accept the little small chat that is part of life, which also serves as a confirmation that the counterperson heard us and is responding. Item (d) is for me the most interesting, but let’s revisit item (b) first.
Despite the famous saying, “Six of one, half a dozen of the other,” is “a half-dozen” always equivalent to “six”? Maybe I expect a baker’s dozen to be 13, so when I say “a half-dozen,” I really want 7 (if rounding up). Or maybe I’m intentionally being imprecise to indicate I’d accept 5 or 7 if the items are unusually small or large. Or maybe I was giving an approximate number so the counterperson could get a bag of the appropriate size but reserving the right to change the number slightly. Or maybe I have a phobia about the number 6, being part of 666, etc. Certainly, in some countries there are many lucky and unlucky numbers, and many hotels in the US still don’t have a 13th floor. And what if I were a poet? Is, “Six shimmering Cinnabons,” the same as, “A half-dozen simmering Cinnabons”? Is, “Herb had a hankering for a half-dozen,” the same as, “He said he’d take six”?
Admittedly, in most cases, “half-dozen” and “six” mean the same thing, but the preceding examples amply demonstrate this is not always the case. So it is no wonder that far more ambiguous statements are misinterpreted all the time. For example, I once had a conversation with Tim O’Reilly that went something like this:
Tim: How high a priority is that book on Director?
Bruce: It is certainly not as important as getting the Dreamweaver book done. I probably won’t start on the Director book until after the Dreamweaver book is complete.
Some time later in the conversation, the following transpired:
Tim: So, we don’t need to decide what to do on the Director book until after the Dreamweaver book is done.
Bruce: I never said that.
Tim: You said you weren’t going to work on it until then anyway.
Bruce: No, I said the Dreamweaver book was a higher priority. I won’t let the Director book get in the way, but I hope to start work on it before completing the Dreamweaver book.
Tim: Arggghhhh! (as he drives off the road into a ditch).
Leaving aside the ambiguity in the word “complete,” which for our purposes means “finishing my editorial duties to the point where I can submit the book to Production, even if I have to QC the manuscript before going to press,” the ambiguities still abound. Both Tim and I would agree that I said the Dreamweaver book is a higher priority. But we disagree as to whether I’ll work on the Director book in the meantime. I intend to work on it as time allows.
There are many factors in assessing whether one person is simply being too anal or the other interpreting the facts too narrowly (or incorrectly). For example, we might have different priorities, different time horizons, or different levels of involvement (and therefore different levels of interest) in a given project. Tim might have misunderstood the subtlety (cell phone static still being what it is) or he might not even be interested. He might want to know only whether the Dreamweaver book will be completed on schedule. He might want to know only whether he can delay thinking about the Director book immediately; even if he does have to think about it before the Dreamweaver book is finished, he doesn’t have to think about it today.
But I think the major conflict when Tim and I communicate is how the two of us deal with ambiguity. In light of ambiguity, Tim seems to make a very firm assumption about what was said/meant and then be very annoyed or distracted if someone intended or interpreted it differently. That is, Tim is fine with ambiguity as long as everyone reaches the same conclusion despite it. :-) Obviously, we wouldn’t call it “ambiguity” if this was a likely outcome. Therefore, I prefer to clarify every ambiguity, and if that is impossible, clarify explicitly that the future remains ambiguous. For example, Tim wants me to report to him as follows:
1. Here is what I think is going to happen.
2. Here is what I intend to do based on these assumptions, and this is why I think it is the right think to do.
OTOH, I always like to add, “But these are the contingency plans, or alternative plans we should consider if my initial assumptions are incorrect.” Or I might say, “I don’t know which of these things are right and I need some guidance from you on it.” My approach leaves Tim thinking I haven’t made a final decision or advocated strongly enough. Tim’s approach leaves me thinking he hasn’t gave me enough guidance. So who is right? Is there a right answer?
It all depends. If Tim hired me expecting a certain amount of expertise, then he is right that I should make my recommendation and not always hedge my bets. If, OTOH, Tim has repeatedly questioned my recommendations and conclusions in the past, it is natural for me to assume I should discuss alternative outcomes and contingencies. Our personalities, stress levels, and expertise also come into play. I tend to be much more anal and detail-oriented, whereas Tim is more of a “big picture” guy. If I have more time than him, I might be more interested in and willing to talk about minor details. But I think the level of experience and expertise is perhaps the biggest contributing factor.
For example, suppose I’ve driven to Joe’s house 1,000 times. You might just say, “Meet me at Joe’s,” and expect me to show up at the “usual” time, having travelled the customary route. OTOH, if I’ve never driven there and don’t know Joe, I might have questions about the directions, the dress code, the time to arrive, whether I should bring anything, or who Joe is. You might reply, “You’ll figure it out. Just follow your nose.”
I postulate that Tim’s superior experience in publishing affords him two things that I don’t have: the ability to approximate an unknown future more accurately, and the knowledge of when such predictions are futile or counterproductive. Absent similar predictive powers, I focus on contingency plans and schedules, while not being able to rule out a sufficient number to arrive at the likely conclusion. In the reverse case where I know more than Tim, such as when discussing the Macromedia product space, I’m happy to summarize things in a way that undoubtedly leaves Tim wanting more details.
Granted, our brains might just be wired differently. I admit that there are many people more comfortable “flying-blind” than I am. Tim would probably say it is because I’m too anal, whereas I’d say I’m trying to gather sufficient information to do my job in an optimal manner long-term. Maybe Tim considers my tenure to be more tenuous. ;-)
Regardless, although we can argue about it usefulness, I must confess to the personality trait that unnerves Tim so. He is more the “In a Nutshell” type, whereas I tend to favor, “The Definitive Guide” series. The former assumes that people are comfortable with the broad strokes in the interest of saving time, even if it introduces substantial ambiguity. The latter is designed for people willing to read (or write) a book that is more in the hand-holding style, leaving no stone unturned. Which are you?
Are you more the “In a Nutshell” or “The Definitive Guide” type? Do you thrive or struggle in the face of ambiguity?