Did I really say that? Pass me the Babel Fish please

Even a seemingly simple question like “How does this dress look?” is fraught with danger. How many men out there have been asked this question and trembled before answering? Guys, (believe me) there is no right answer to this question!! The only “palatable” answer I’ve come up with in my relatively sheltered life is – “You know answering that question will incriminate me and ruin the rest of the night for us”. My wife then smiles/chuckles and rewords the question into something a little more considerate. It’s the only way I have found to diffuse a looming train wreck.

Why is it that when a female asks another female this question a hundred possible answers are valid, but when a female asks a male this question there is only one valid answer? And, that valid answer is not the same as it was the last time you were asked the same question!!

Fortunately, most questions I get asked in a business environment are far easier than the “dress” question; however, that doesn’t mean I hear what is said in the way it is meant to be heard. The true essence of “listening” is difficult and it has become even more difficult with the ever increasing inter-connectedness that we all share (mainly) through technology. “Listening”, in the sense that I think of it, also applies to the written word. Am I writing clearly and precisely? Am I going to be understood by the majority of those reading this Blog? I hope so, on both counts.

The reason I am writing about this topic right now is that it appears to me that we are making far too many assumptions when we communicate. Sometimes this matters and sometimes it doesn’t. How much effective communication matters is dependent on context (as does the majority of our existence) and I think on far too many occasions we forget this. Cutting people some slack when they use the wrong word/intonation/phrase etc will help ease the pain for both/all parties.

My own approach to clarifying a statement is to use an example of what I mean, which is similar to the “stories” approach being promoted quite widely at the moment within our (Testing) community. I have been telling “stories” for years without classifying them as such.

We have a major problem in our current approach to communicating needs/requirements; not just in software development, but in life generally. How do I know that the person listening to (or reading) my request (truly) heard what I said or really understood what I wrote? How do I know that you (the reader) is taking in every nuance of what I’m trying to convey in this Blog? The answer is, I don’t. Does that really matter in the grand scheme of things – in my humble opinion, not really. My Blog is a personal view of the world and NOT an instruction manual to be followed to the letter – unlike a Business or Product Specification. If the conveyers of requirements (either business users or business analysts) considered their communications in terms of an Instruction Manual then maybe we would get clearer results.

The best Instruction Manuals (not those from IKEA) have a healthy mix of words and pictures and come in multiple languages in order to minimise the “Lost in Translation” effect; however, we have all seen the “howlers” that occur in even the best intentioned situations. Here is an example I used several years ago when I presented a conference paper on this subject. I wrote a simple phrase in English and translated it into French and then German and then back into English. Here’s what happened:

Testing to die for” (English) became – “Essai a mourir pour” (French), which became “Zu sterbender versuch” (German), which then became “Dying attempt” (back to English). I then introduced another language (Portuguese) into the sequence (between the English and the French) and “Testing to die for” became “Experiment to Die“!!!

As you all know by now, Douglas Adams was (in my opinion) an absolute mega brain. In the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series he solved one of the major problems of communication by introducing the concept of the Babel Fish. You place a Babel Fish in your ear and no matter what language the other person speaks the Babel Fish ensures that you hear the words in your own language. Therefore, millions of possible galactic disasters would be avoided if an Outer Stentarian said “Qrwst ick flwe brunk” to the leader of the neighbouring solar system, who then heard “Your majesty’s wife looks like a pigs bum”. “Where was the interpreter?”, I hear you ask. Well, that was through an interpreter!! (Please note this is not an extract from HGTG, but a made up example from me).

So, we have a slight problem. I say “I want to provide a facility where my customers can go to a machine and retrieve some cash from their bank account”. Immediately, the person I am talking/writing to will conjure up an image of an ATM (Automated Teller Machine) in their head. I have not asked for an ATM, I have provided a request for a product that will help me deliver physical money to my customers.

But I digress… The real reason I am writing about this subject at this time is to highlight a current global challenge where we live in a world of increasing connectedness, but we have yet to build sufficient tools to help us communicate more effectively. If I had written this Blog just 15 years ago the chances of it being read outside of Australia would have been minimal, today it will be read in approximately 40/50 countries almost simultaneously. Even being read inside Australia creates challenges as we have well in excess of 100 languages spoken here. Not only must I try and write in plain and simple English, I must also consider how it may be “interpreted”.

Language and words are fundamental to our communications with each other and I see far too many examples of inappropriate castigation when it comes to this. So, I am asking everyone out there to think before they speak, think before they respond and think before they criticise. We work in a very diverse profession and we use thousands of words and terms to describe what we want and what we do, sometimes it is important to be specific and sometimes it is not. Make sure everyone understands the context of your request or question. Make sure you respond within that same context. Make sure you have a Glossary of Terms when there is a possibility of misinterpretation.

I know we are in the “Quality and Risk” business, but as I said before, context should be fundamental to our approach and this means that not every sentence has the same value and not every statement should not be analysed ad nauseum. Most of us are “fussy” types and this makes it even harder to rein back our thoughts when we are listening/looking at something; however, I promise you that if you take this approach you will live a far less frustrating existence and may even enjoy reading Requirements documents…

Dateline: Friday March 1, 2013; Melbourne, Australia



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