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Ambiguous Language Can Be Good

December 7, 2018

By:

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics at Temple University in Philadelphia.  Paulos writes about many subjects, including the dangers of mathematical innumeracy; that is, people's misconceptions about numbers, probability, and logic.

 

He has also written about how ambiguity in language can hamper communication and understanding. In his 1997 book A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper he showed how such language could render a letter of recommendation meaningless: 

 

You write to ask me for my opinion of X, who has applied for a position in your department. I cannot recommend him too highly nor say enough good things about him. There is no other student of mine with whom I can adequately compare him. His thesis is the sort of work you don't expect to see nowadays and in it he has clearly demonstrated his complete capabilities. The amount of material he knows will surprise you. You will indeed be fortunate if you can get him to work for you.

 

Many of my jobs over the years involved working with my companies' corporate clients. And 99% of the time, it was a rewarding and enriching experience, as I got to work with smart, nice, and reasonable people. But there was this one woman, who I'll call Clarissa. She thought most vendors were out to cheat their clients, and those who weren't were worse, as they were too stupid to figure out how. And all of her actions demonstrated that belief. 

 

It was the custom at her company for someone senior to ask  vendors to evaluate their day-to-day contact. I worked more closely with Clarissa than anyone else,  so the task fell to me.  It was a trap, and I knew it. I couldn't possibly say what I wanted to say and I couldn't bring myself to praise her. That's when I remembered the passage from Paulos' book. I did an internet search, quickly found it, and used it to craft my evaluation: 

 

You asked us to provide an assessment of Clarissa. My VP assigned  your request to me, as  Clarissa and I have worked closely together for two years, although it seems much longer. I cannot say enough good things about Clarissa as a client. There is no other client of mine with whom I can adequately compare her.  Her interaction with me and others in my company is unparalleled; in fact it is incredible. Every day, she clearly demonstrates her level of respect for the entire organization. We are continually surprised by the type of support she provides. 

 

I hit Send with no concern; I knew I had dodged a bullet. A couple of days later, I received an email from Clarissa's boss, thanking me for my assessment and saying something like "You have reaffirmed my belief that Clarissa is true asset to both of our organizations." 

 

So--ambiguous language, while generally to be avoided, does have its uses! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

provides. There is only one Clarissa, and we are grateful.

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