Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 29;   July 27, 2022: Gratuitous Use of Synonyms, Aliases, and Metaphors

Gratuitous Use of Synonyms, Aliases, and Metaphors


The COVID-19 pandemic has permanently changed how we work. We're now more virtual than before. In this new environment, synonyms, aliases, and metaphors can pave the path to trouble. To avoid expensive mistakes, our use of language must be more precise.
A scientifically accurate atomic model of the external structure of the SARS-CoV-2

A scientifically accurate atomic model of the external structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each "ball" is an atom. The spikes are the tools the virus uses to penetrate cells in the host.

This virus has compelled many collaborating groups to work virtually rather than face-to-face. When we work together virtually, the language we use to exchange ideas is freer to form regional dialects. That divergence opens a path for confusion to enter our work.

Image (cc) by SA 4.0 by Alexey Solodovnikov courtesy Wikipedia.

You're in a meeting that has been tangled in this one agenda item for 25 minutes, which is about 24 minutes longer than it was worth. The group is trying to decide whether to include a not-ready-for-prime-time component in the latest prototype. Finally, the lone holdout asks, "Wait. Are you saying that the Delta version of this thing is identical to the Gamma version?"

Five people respond in an enthusiastic chorus, "Yes!"

Holdout replies, "Then why do the two versions have different names?"

One member of the chorus has an explanation: "Delta used to have the Prime enhancements, and Gamma didn't. But Prime got cancelled last Thursday, so Delta had to be reverted to the Gamma configuration. To save time, we copied the Gamma version and gave the copy the name Delta."

Holdout replies, "Ok then, I agree, we can go with it as is."

So there went 24 minutes that nobody can get back, all because of a misunderstanding about a name.

Misunderstandings of this kind can arise for many reasons. Three of the most frustrating are the gratuitous uses of synonyms, aliases, and metaphors. I call these usages gratuitous because they're elective and unnecessary.

For example, the term hardcopy is fairly well understood by everyone. When someone asks, "Can we get this document in hardcopy?" we understand that he or she is asking for a version of the document that's produced by a printer or copier. But some people, for some reason, might ask for the dead tree version. Thinking about it for a moment, we realize that the request is for hardcopy. And hearing this phrase for the first time, we might even be amused.

Using the term dead tree version is gratuitous. It's elective and unnecessary. And although it's amusing to some, its usage can create problems. The problem with gratuitous use of synonyms, aliases, and metaphors traces to the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 and regional dialects

Before the Before the COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread
adoption of virtual work arrangements, communication
between members of groups and teams was more
likely to be face-to-face than it is now
COVID-19 pandemic led to lockdowns and the rapid spread of virtual work arrangements, communication between members of groups and teams was more likely to be face-to-face than it is now. Communication was therefore more immediate. Interactions occurred in hallways, in elevators, at coffee stations, and in face-to-face meetings. If someone used a new term or used ean old term in a new way, the usage would spread rapidly. If we heard a term that was unfamiliar, we could ask a colleague privately for clarification.

But when COVID-19 forced us into a virtual format, communication became less immediate. New terms or new usages of old terms spread more slowly, because we were more separated from each other. And asking a colleague for clarification became more difficult because of that same separation.

Although the pandemic's intensity is now reduced, many work arrangements remain more virtual than they once were. One result is that in our increasingly virtual working environment, there are more ways of referring to the same thing. This happens because we take longer to arrive at consensus names for things, or consensus usages of the terms we have. Our shared vocabulary is far more diverse, and the part of our vocabulary that is shared is reduced. We're developing "regional" dialects, even within companies and teams.

Synonyms, aliases, and metaphors

A measure of this confusion is the degree of variety in the language we use. Three channels that enable this diversification are synonyms, aliases, and metaphors.

Two words are synonyms for each other if one can be used as a substitute for the other. The state of being a synonym is a matter of degree, because no two words mean precisely the same thing in every context.
An alias is a secondary name for something that has a primary name. For example, Marigold might be the project's official name. Its alias might be "Roland's project." Unless the alias somehow becomes official, some people might not know that the primary and secondary names refer to the same thing.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that references one concept, object, or action, by identifying it with another. In metaphors, that identification of one concept with another isn't literally accurate. For example, the statement, "My son's room is a war zone," identifies my son's room as a war zone, when it isn't literally a war zone. Metaphors make writing interesting, but they open new paths to confusion.

These three linguistic forms give us opportunities to insert variety into our conversations. From the perspective of interesting writing, that's a good thing. But if our goal is broad, mutual understanding of complex subjects, they introduce risk of confusion.

Last words

When we use alternative language in important conversations, we can't be sure that every participant understands both forms in exactly the same way. That can lead to groups believing they have decided something together when in fact they have not. If you notice two terms being used to denote the same thing, raise a question: "Can we use one of these two terms, and stop using the other?" If that question provokes a debate, then there is disagreement that transcends language. And that can lead to expensive mistakes, or worse. Go to top Top  Next issue: Significance Messages  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.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 Effective Meetings:

Comparision of brain scans before and after a concussionMeeting Bullies: Advice for Chairs
Bullying in meetings is difficult to address, because intervention in the moment is inherently public. When bullying happens in meetings, what can you do?
Dogs Fighting in a Wooded Clearing, by Frans SnydersOvertalking: II
Overtalking is a tactic for dominating a conversation by talking to stop others from talking. When it happens, what can we do about it?
C. Northcote Parkinson in 1961Meeting Troubles: Collaboration
In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) speaks at a recent Senate hearingOvert Belligerence in Meetings
Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern.
Three gulls excluding a fourthWorkplace Politics and Social Exclusion: I
In the workplace, social exclusion is the practice of systematically excluding someone from activities in which they would otherwise be invited to participate. When used in workplace politics, it's ruinous for the person excluded, and expensive to the organization.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Vulture getting ready to strike a dying prey, KenyaComing March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
Bust of Aristotle. Marble. Roman copy after a Greek bronze originalAnd on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet 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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.