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Say What You Mean

Facebook has led me to see a lot of people who, while intelligent, don’t know how to communicate in such a way that their viewpoints have any strength or apparent merit. I’d like to see that repaired – because reading stupid stuff wastes everyone’s time. While I’m not the wisest person or the most effective communicator on the planet, I’ve been around enough to know a little.

To be an effective communicator in any medium, here’s my advice:

Say what you mean.

A corrollary to this is: know what you mean.

Avoid hyperbole, statements that are exaggerated in order to illustrate a point, unless you actually know your audience is going to recognize it for what it is. The truth is that a public audience of virtually any size will not recognize hyperbole. Some in the audience might; maybe even most. But assuming everyone will recognize it is going to lead to you having misrepresented yourself.

Avoid sarcasm, the use of irony to mock something. Like hyperbole, if you know your audience is going to recognize it, that’s fine. Chances are very good that as the audience grows in size, someone’s going to misunderstand sarcasm, plain and simple.

I’m a jokester – I’m very sarcastic in my internal conversations. I’ve had to learn through years of screwing up that my sarcasm’s main audience is (and should be) myself, and that others should be sheltered from it, if possible, rather than exposed to it.

I’m not perfect, by any measure – since my internal dialogue is very sarcastic, it slips through now and then.

It’s burned me before; I wrote a very sarcastic article on a website years ago that suggested that Java sucked, for a very (very) trivial reason – that “it couldn’t tell I meant x when I said y.” I thought it was an entirely laughable reason; surely everyone would see that it was a joke, even if they didn’t see the humor in it.

Boy, was I wrong. I actually amended the post to specifically say that it was an attempt at humor, but people still didn’t get it.

It’s okay. I learned.

Set Theory

Set theory actually informs a lot of how I communicate.

By the way, mathematicians will now proceed to scream at me about how poorly I’m representing sets here. Sorry about that, David.

Set theory is built around collections, and how those collections interact. A set interacts with other sets through the use of unions, intersections, and complements. Sets can be subsets or supersets of other sets, or have no relationships whatsoever.

A set whose members all exist in another set is a subset. Integers, for examples, make up a subset of real numbers. Real numbers make up, correspondingly, a superset of integers.

A union of a set is the addition of one set to another. Given a set of [A,B,C] and another set [D,E,F], the union of these two sets would be [A,B,C,D,E,F]. A union of sets [A,B,C] and [C,D,E] (note how “C” is in both sets) is [A,B,C,D,E].

An intersection of sets refers to the elements in common between the two sets. Given [A,B,C] and [D,E,F], the intersection would be the empty set: []. Given [A,B,C] and [C,D,E] (again, note “C” in common) would be [C].

A complement of a set indicates the members of one set such that they do not exist in another set. If we have set A of [1,2,3] and set B of [1,1.5,2,2.5,3,3.5], the complement of set A in set B is [1.5, 2.5, 3.5].

How This Matters

Set theory works fantastically well in mathematics. The problem, though, is that people apply it outside of mathematics, where the lines aren’t as clear.

For example, I consider myself a libertarian. That means I’m not a republican, not a democrat, not an anarchist (although some think libertarianism is the same as anarchism), and not a socialist. I even respect Ayn Rand.

Respecting Ayn Rand doesn’t mean the same thing as walking in lock-step with her ghost.

I’m in the set of Libertarians.

The problem comes when one applies a statement to “all libertarians,” because almost no such statement would be true, unless it’s a tautology.

An example of a statement that would be very true (but not always true) would be “Libertarians are those identify with libertarianism.” It’s mostly true, and is largely self-evident; however, there are people who call themselves Republicans or Democrats who would probably identify strongly with libertarianism, and there are also people who call themselves libertarians who are, actually, fascists or anarchists, for whatever reason.

That’s okay. The problem comes in as a facet of cardinality. When you say “All X are in the set of Y”, as the size of X or Y grows the likelihood of error becomes much greater.

Remember that “Don’t use hyperbole” statement at the beginning of this post? “All of my audience is in the set of people who understand hyperbole” fits in well here; as the size of X grows, the likelihood of the statement being true falls dramatically.

When you use cardinal referents like “always,” “never,” or “all,” you’re saying something real, with actual meaning. If you mean it, that’s great. If you don’t, then own that and don’t say it. Otherwise you make yourself into a cartoon, really, to those whom you’re afflicting with your words.

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