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Founder, Reverb Technologies/Wordnik


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How important is a common vocabulary for sharing ideas, and how do we arrive at one?

This Live Conversation will start on November 3, at 2pm ET / 11am PT.

Do we need to all be "on the same page" to have productive conversations? Do we have to use the same language or talk about ideas in the same way? What are some examples of vocabulary that's divisive, rather than helpful (e.g. "death panels")?


Closing Statement from Erin McKean

Thanks so much for all the great stories and suggestions -- such a big question can't be answered in an hour, but it's wonderful to be able to talk about it with the TED community! For more discussions follow my Twitter at @emckean. Thanks everyone!

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  • Nov 3 2011: I don't believe it would help all that much. Miscommunication is mostly a matter of interpretation in our minds, not difference in vocabulary.

    For example, when I say the word "teacup," I'm only using one word ("same vocabulary"), but three different people will imagine three different things. I imagine a shallow, wide piece of china sitting on a saucer with wavy blue decorations circling around it. My brother imagines a modern coffee cup with a tea bag hanging inside it, and you might imagine a square-handled cup the otherwise is similar to mine (minus the decorations). One word evokes a wide range of thoughts. It gets a thousand times more complex when we bring in abstract ideas, such as "justice" or "healthy," instead of simple physical nouns.

    Further, there are complications of approach. You see this very prominently in religion. Protestant sects are reading approximately the same Bible, but they come up with completely different interpretations because one sect approaches it very literally, and another approaches it as metaphor.

    As far as one language, the argument has repeatedly been made that we would lose a lot of color and expressiveness if the human race had one language. I have to agree, especially since the benefit is only an attempt to correct symptoms of a much deeper underlying cause: that differences in ideas are about the psychology of our interpretations.

    However, I think it's fair to point out that having a "central language" does have benefit in academic fields. Latin and Sanskrit serve as historic examples.

    And to answer your other questions...no, we don't have to be "on the same page" for productivity. We've been doing it otherwise for thousands of years anyways. Plus, our minds are amazing things. They may interpret things differently, but they always have a way of reconstructing things into a new, unique logical order. I'd contend that reinterpretation of this sort fuels most of our new ideas. Having these differences drives innovation.
    • Nov 3 2011: I like the idea of "productive friction" -- that overcoming differences in language or opinion creates new discoveries!
      • Nov 3 2011: Totally. My business partner is a TEDx speaker himself, and although at our core we've been working together for so long that we have a very similar way of viewing things, we still think about it completely differently. He takes a much more "people centered" and feeling approach (which works wonders for networking and communicating to our audience), and I generally take a much more "philosophical" and "strategic" approach, which is beneficial for planning and development. We wind up working extremely well together because of our differences in personality and approach.

        In fact, our entire business is about personality profiling and helping people use their unique way of thinking to maximize their success. We believe anyone can change the world if they just tap into their profile.
    • Nov 3 2011: This is confusing.... to which post are you commenting on here, Erin?

      Eric Westfall 0Replying...
      10 minutes ago: I don't believe it would help all that much. Miscommunication is mostly a matter of interpretation in our minds, not difference in vocabulary.


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