Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 51;   December 20, 2017: Conceptual Mondegreens

Conceptual Mondegreens

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen.
Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976

Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976. Radner is in costume as Emily Litella. Publicity photo by NBC Television courtesy Wikimedia.

Mondegreens are words or phrases that listeners believe they've heard, but which weren't actually spoken or sung. They sound enough like what was said, and seem to make sense, but they're wrong. A cousin of the malapropism, which is a word or phrase mistakenly substituted by a speaker, the mondegreen is a word or phrase mistakenly substituted by the listener. Mondegreens [Wright 1954] are sometimes very funny, but usually they're just dumb [Barber 1996].

Some famous mondegreens were demonstrated by Gilda Radner, a member of the original cast of Saturday Night Live, an American television program. During the show's simulated news segments, Radner appeared in the role of "Emily Litella," an elderly woman with a hearing problem. As a "columnist," she opined endlessly about topics such as "endangered feces" (species), "saving Soviet jewelry" (Jewry), and "sax and violins on television" (sex and violence). Upon being corrected by the "news anchor," Ms. Litella would sheepishly exit, saying, "Never mind," which became a catch phrase of the day, and remains in use in the U.S.

But I digress.

A conceptual mondegreen is a concept that a discussion participant mistakenly substitutes for the actual concept under discussion. It seems to makes sense, but it's incorrect, causing the misunderstander to miss the point.

For example, in a debate about circumventing arcane accounting rules regarding capitalization of software development, a mondegreen might involve the rules about capitalizing software, instead of software development.

Here are two common situations in which conceptual mondegreens arise.

Problem solving
When trying to explain why a problem solution failed, if the available data is of poor quality or incomplete, formulating a hypothesis can produce conceptual mondegreens. A hypothesis is useful for devising experiments to gather better data, but instead of devising experiments, some people just accept the hypothesis as true. Then they commit the organization to a solution modified on that basis, which can be an expensive error if the hypothesis is incorrect.
When solving A conceptual mondegreen is a
concept that a discussion participant
mistakenly substitutes for the
actual concept under discussion
problems, adopt candidate explanations as mere candidates. Devise experiments to reveal their shortcomings, rather than to confirm their strengths.
Contending with adversaries
Conceptual mondegreens also appear when we try to understand the behavior of adversaries such as political rivals, competitive companies, battlefield opponents, opposing sports teams, or products similar to our own. Observing the adversary's configuration and resources, we project its future behavior. But unlike problem solving, we can't always perform experiments to refine our conjectures. Still, we might try a feint on the battlefield, the playing field, or in the marketplace, to see how the adversary responds. That might provide useful data, but the best data comes from ongoing engagement with the adversary.
Adopt the view that continued engagement with the adversary has value beyond possibly winning the competition. It also provides data that can resolve the conceptual mondegreens pertaining to the adversary's behavior.

When a mondegreen makes an appearance, it can indicate uneven distribution of knowledge or expertise within the group. Unless that's addressed, mondegreens will likely appear again and again. Go to top Top  Next issue: On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Footnotes

[Wright 1954]
The term was coined by Sylvia Wright in a 1954 article in Harper's Magazine, "The Death of Lady Mondegreen," November 1, 1954, pp. 48-51. Back
[Barber 1996]
See also Michael Barber's A Collection of Humorous Mondegreens. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenXMBAmUbuoDwOzJiener@ChacDIrTcpapRqtOvWpfoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

A gray wolf. Animosity between wolves helps ensure balance.Animosity Patterns
Animosity between two people at work is often attributed to "personality clashes." While sometimes people can't get along, animosity can also be a tool for accomplishing strictly political ends. Here's a short catalog of some of its uses.
Muhammad Ali in 1967Rope-A-Dope in Organizational Politics
Mohammed Ali's strategy of "rope-a-dope" has wide application. Here's an example of applying it to workplace politics at the organizational scale.
Spanish Walking Stick insect (Leptynia hispanica)Pariah Professions: II
In some organizations entire professions are regarded as pariahs — outsiders. They're expected to perform functions that the organization does need, but their relationships with others in the organization are strained at best. When pariahdom is tolerated, organizational performance suffers.
Rep. Elijah Cummings and Rep. Darryl IssaGrace Under Fire: I
If you're ever in a tight spot in a meeting, one in which you must defend your actions or past decisions, the soundness of your arguments can matter less than your demeanor. What can you do when someone intends to make you "lose it?"
Bull moose sparring in Grand Teton National ParkContextual Causes of Conflict: I
When destructive conflict erupts, we usually hold responsible only the people directly involved. But the choices of others, and general circumstances, can be the real causes of destructive conflict.

See also Conflict Management and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Two men whispering at a village festivalComing January 23: Judging Others
Being "judgmental" is a stance most people recognize as transgressing beyond widely accepted social norms. But what's the harm in judging others? And why do so many people do it so often? Available here and by RSS on January 23.
Bottom: Aerial view of the Forth Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland. Top: Inside the Forth Rail Bridge, from a ScotRail 158 on August 22, 1999.And on January 30: Conway's Law and Technical Debt
Conway's Law is an observation that the structures of systems we design tend to replicate our communication patterns. This tendency might also contribute to their tendency to accumulate what we now call technical debt. Available here and by RSS on January 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenCMjvtekYgLrmjnrSner@ChacJdzdTRUAzPsjEHywoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.