Making something ‘a thing’

Does coining a phrase actually make it less clear?

I was talking with someone in another team at work last week about some things I’ve been working on. I talked about ‘mental models’ as something I was trying to better understand with some research.

Later in the conversation it became clear that we were both talking about two quite different things. My use of the phrase ‘mental models’ had keyed them in to a whole train of knowledge and thinking, but not the same one that I was basing my side of the conversation on. Granted the phrase ‘mental models’ has some level of descriptive power, so we were still both thinking about issues to do with how people think. But we’d both taken the phrase to coin something quite different.

I was talking about people’s mental model of how a specific technical process worked. What actions they took and what they thought that achieved in a system. They were talking about someone’s all round experience including how they think, feel and act around an experience. Neither is right or wrong, although their interpretation was based on a detailed bit of writing on the subject so probably has more claim to the phrase than mine. ‘Mental Models’ rather than ‘mental models’, you could say.

And it got me thinking about how many phrases like this we coin, and how we still all understand them differently. I’ve come across plenty of these over the years; Growth Mindsets, Learning Styles, Quiet Quitting, Ambient Intimacy, Group Think.

I think it’s pretty well understood that we all have slightly different understandings of individual words. When people coin phrases like this though, it gives them an air of being a concept well explained and similarly understood.

I’m not sure though whether coining the phrase makes the concept perhaps less likely to be understood in many cases. A phrase seems less ambiguous than a word somehow, especially if it’s been shared to the point we all think about it in inverted commas or with capitals starting every word.

The more ubiquitous the coined phrase, the more likely one or neither of the people in a given conversation where it is used are likely to have engaged in detail with where it came from. Especially if it’s a phrase that on the face of it seems descriptive.

Growth Mindset is one of these that I keep noticing. It seems pretty descriptive, and requiring little explanation. But it seems to be interpreted to mean all sorts of different things, with different nuances and affectations, to the point where two people could have two very different understandings of what the concept actually is.

Carol Dweck has set out in some detail in the book Mindset what ‘Growth Mindset’ is based on a body of research and a host of illustrative anecdotes. Quite a few people have read this book, and the ideas have been shared very widely. It’s a powerful concept because there is a certain descriptive quality to the phrase, and it’s an idea that is fairly simple to understand but challenges orthodox thinking.

Ideas like this are powerful and have spread because many of us feel like we ‘just get’ them. They resonate with our experience and give validation to it. At their best they can give us a framework to better understand that experience.

The problem with this though is that all our experiences are different, and what has resonated with you is probably not what resonated with everyone else. Especially if anyone involved got their take on the phrase from hearing it vaguely referenced somewhere else or casually brought up in conversation.

Because these phrases have gained a certain ubiquity, they are shared increasingly casually and the likelihood we have understood them in different ways ever increases.

The ex-academic in me is tempted to say that we shouldn’t use phrases like this to explain things to other people unless we have engaged with the original literature. While this may be good advice for undergraduates writing assignments, for anyone else it’s a recipe for either a life of almost constant reading or one disregarding of a lot of useful ideas.

But it’s worth noticing when these phrases come up in conversation or discussion, and testing out whether you really do all have a similar understanding of what they mean, and what’s important about them.

Those different understandings can be quite productive when they are surfaced. To go back to my original example, I realise I was disregarding how people felt about an experience in my research, which did have the potential to be an important factor.

When they aren’t surfaced though, you can be talking about entirely different things, while thinking you are very much on the same page.

After all you’re both using this clearly defined and un-ambiguous concept, right?


Things I’m paying attention to this week


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