“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”
One sunny day, a fishmonger put up the following sign:
TODAY: FRESH FISH
One of his first customers said to him: “What’s this sign I see? You only have fresh fish today?”
“Of course not,” said the fishmonger. “I have fresh fish every day. You’ve been coming here for the past eight years. You know that.”
“Then why did you write: Today: Fresh Fish? That’s confusing,” said the customer.
So the fishmonger erased the word TODAY.
An hour later another customer questioned him about the sign:
“Why does it say ‘Fresh Fish’? Isn’t your fish always fresh? Or have you been selling me unfresh fish all these years?”
“Of course not,” answered the fishmonger a bit annoyed. “Each day I go to the harbor at the crack of dawn and buy my fish straight from the men who caught it. It can’t get any fresher than that.”
“Then why did you write: Fresh Fish? That’s confusing,” said the customer.
So the fishmonger erased the word FRESH. “I don’t get these people,” he mumbled. “Wasn’t it obvious what I was trying to say?”
Our life is filled with unspoken assumptions. The obvious does not need to be stated, does it? If we hold that to be true, we’re forgetting one thing:
What’s obvious to one person might not be obvious to another person.
Language in and of itself is vague, inadequate and ambiguous, and therefore up for interpretation. If you have any doubts about that, talk to theologians or lawyers. In both cases you often need divine intervention to get them to agree on anything, even if they speak the same language.
Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski (1879–1950) is the developer of what he called “General Semantics.” Simply put, this refers to the study of how you and I react to our environment or an event, and how we derive meaning from it.
Korzybski coined the phrase “The map is not the territory,” meaning that a word is not what it defines (the territory), but merely a symbolic representation of it (the map). That’s why we don’t get wet from the word water.
Here’s the problem: if we don’t know what the territory looks like, how on earth can we know what the map refers to?
Take Nike’s famous trademark “Just do it.”
Without knowing anything about it, would you have any idea what these three words stand for? For instance: what is “it”? And if we don’t know what “it” is, how are we supposed to know how to “do” “it”? It could mean a million things, and we’re supposed to “just” do them? Forget it!
Let’s move away from fishy advertising and “just do” a little experiment. Take this simple sentence:
“We only have a small budget.”
That’s plain English, isn’t it? But what does it really mean? Do we have enough information to know what the writer intended it to mean?
If you say “yes” to the question, please tell me what you think it means and what you are basing it on. If you say “no,” tell me what is missing.
I have a feeling that you’ve seen this sentence before. I will also go as far as to imagine that every day, freelancers like you and me allow these six words to influence the bids they put in, to win a project. Am I right?
In order to truly know what the client means by “We only have a small budget,” a lot of blanks need to be filled in. First of all: who is “we”? Is it a client? And if so, who is this client? Donald Trump? I bet you anything that what “the Donald,” considers to be small, will forever redefine your meaning of the word!
My voiceover agent sometimes sends me five hundred-dollar jobs and apologizes for the “small budget.” To some, five hundred dollars might be a huge step up from the hundred-dollar jobs they’ve been auditioning for, just to break into the business. But considering the fact that this client is a key retailer and that the job involves all major markets and a six-year buyout, five hundred bucks is very low pay.
It’s all relative, relatively speaking.
By giving you these examples, what did I just do?
I provided you with some context.
The meaning of words is not only determined by what you find in the dictionary. It is defined by the setting and circumstances in which they are used. In fact, dictionary editors define the meaning of words by studying the context in which they appear. They even come up with sentences in which a word is used to illustrate its meaning.
But let’s assume that little or no context is provided. What do we usually do to attempt to understand the words we read or hear?
We start making things up. Believe it or not, there’s a mindreader in all of us! To me, this is where things get really interesting. On what exactly do we base our uninformed guesses?
I remember the first time I drove on an American highway and saw a sign that said RAMP. I must confess that I had no idea what it meant (for first-time readers: I’m originally from The Netherlands).
In an attempt to understand its meaning, my mind started making associations based on my personal frame of reference. In Dutch, the word RAMP means DISASTER! Till this very day, I get uncomfortable whenever I see that sign.
Without a clear context and without the ability to ask any questions, we generally base our understanding on speculation, which in turn is based on our subjective experience. In other words: the way you interpret “we only have a small budget,” will tell us a lot about you and next to nothing about the person who wrote it. This gets us into trouble all the time.
As a service provider it is not supposed to be about us. It’s about what the client wants to see and needs to hear. But clients typically hand out maps and leave it to us to second-guess what their territory is supposed to look or sound like.
They’ll tell you:
“I don’t know how to describe to you what I want, but I know it when I hear it. As long as you try to sound warm but professional…. If you know what I mean.”
No I don’t know what you mean. How could I? We have never met. Sometimes I don’t even understand my wife, and I think that I know her better than most people.
Now, do you still wonder why you didn’t land that ‘warm and professional’ gig?
Could it be, because you were led by your own assumptions? Did you forget to ask critical questions, or were you unable or not allowed to contact the client and get some context?
Beginners often wonder: “If only I could get some feedback after the fact. That would give me some idea as to why my audition was rejected.”
I think it would be much more helpful to get some perspective before the fact; some sense of direction. Dump the vague and ambiguous verbiage. If you don’t tell us what you want, how are we supposed to give it to you? I know that words are inadequate ways of describing an experience, but can you at least try a little harder?
While you do that, let’s go back to the story.
TODAY: FRESH FISH
After erasing the first two words, the fishmonger stared at the sign that now read “FISH.”
That should do it, he thought.
No one can argue with that.
He was ready to go inside when a boy walked up to him. He had a ten-dollar bill in his hand.
“Sir, sir…” the boy said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” said the fishmonger. “What can I help you with, young man?”
The boy looked at him with big, hopeful eyes.
“Sir, I just saw your sign and I was wondering: do you sell goldfish?”
The fishmonger made a gesture of utter exasperation.
People are completely clueless, he thought.
Then he took a damp sponge and erased the word FISH.