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The Chair Problem

Words are an amazing thing and the written word is this incredible, magical means to communicate what is in one person's mind to someone else's mind when they have never met and even potentially across time. You can read the written words of people who are no longer alive, sometimes in cases where they died centuries before you were ever born.

But there are lots of ways this form of communication can go wrong. I generally think of this as the chair problem.

Chair is a perfectly useful word but it it somewhat vague. There are many objects that can rightly be called a chair and they differ wildly.

If you are trying to give someone instructions for how to accomplish a thing, telling them to put a chair in that spot is probably not sufficient information, especially if they have to purchase said chair. If they are grabbing one from the supply room or elsewhere in the same building, you may not need to give a lot of specifics because there may be a limited selection of chairs available. But if they are going to buy a chair, they likely need a whole lot more information.

Chair is an equally valid way to talk about a wooden dining chair or a metal folding chair or an overstuffed armchair. These all have different uses and different contexts in which they make some kind of sense and trying to substitute one for another can go very bad places.

There is an outdoor theater in Woodward Park, Fresno, California. When I was in Fresno, they had a bunch of maybe folding chairs or cheap, plastic stackable chairs they would pull out and set up on the grass whenever they were going to do a show.

It doesn't rain a lot in Fresno, about 11 inches a year, so imagine if someeone decided that the nice dry weather meant that overstuffed armchairs was a good idea for this use case. Among other things, the cost would be prohibitive, you would need vastly more storage space and it would take enormously more man power to set them out and put them away.

There would likely be other issues as well. When I was a military wife, I had household goods in storage for sometimes weeks or months at a time and learned the hard way that you get bugs in places you never expected and you get mildew in things you never thought were at risk and assorted other freaky problems that were not anything I expected.

When you write, you deal with the fact that a diverse audience will read it and they will generally run your words through their mind and interpret those words through the lens of their life experience. Inevitably, people will have an assortment of wildly different interpretations for the same words and phrases no matter how hard you try to be clear and precise.

To some degree, it is on the reader to make some effort to try to figure out what is in the author's mind that they are trying to convey. Being too quick to pattern match their words and phrases to your own life experience instead of theirs tends to go weird places.

I think it is this process that accounts for a lot of seeming arguments in the world. Often, it isn't actually an argument at all. It's merely a failure to effectively communicate.

In many cases, two people aren't really talking about the same things. They are talking about entirely different things using some of the same words and phrases.

So before you get all het up and fighty, maybe take a minute to find out exactly what kind of chair they are talking about. It may not at all match what's in your mind that has you ready to pick a fight.




I'm seriously handicapped and not well-heeled. I write in hopes of making a few bucks via tips and Patreon. Please and thank you.

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