Tuesday, April 27, 2021

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on my Face? - by Alan Alda

The subtitle of Alda's book is "My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating". He begins his book by telling a story about some miscommunication between himself and his dentist which resulted in Alda not being able to do his job as an actor effectively. The dentist was unclear when telling Alda about the procedure and Alda was too intimidated to ask for clarification. Alda wraps up with the book by explaining the importance of storytelling. Stories make information sharing more relatable, and are more interesting than lectures. In between he tells a lot of stories to illustrate his points and to engage the reader as he explains how people can better understand each other.

While Alda does mention looking up some information in the Stony Brook online library, this brief library reference isn't what prompted me to write a post about the book on the "Library Books" blog. It was instead, what Alda discusses near the end of the work in the chapter called "Jargon and the Curse of Knowledge". Here he explains not only that we shouldn't use professional jargon when speaking to lay people (meaning anyone outside of our own profession - whatever it may be) but also why that can be hard to do. "Once we know something it is hard to unknow it, to remember what it's like to be a beginner. It keeps us from considering the listener". 

I thought a lot about what Alda said in this chapter in light of how my job as a reference librarian has changed in the last year since I do most of my work remotely. Virtually all reference questions are now asked and answered "virtually" via live chat text messages. When someone chimes in with a question I often feel as if I am coming into the middle of a conversation. It is not uncommon for a a question to start with something like 'I can't find any information on my topic'. Here I am at so many disadvantages. I don't know the person's topic; I don't know what kind of information they need; I don't know where they have already looked; I don't have nuances to help me such as body language or voice tone. Most importantly I don't know if they've ever even used the library search engines before. I have to keep this in mind when I start asking questions myself (e.g. "What is your topic?"; "Do you know how to get to (X) database?"; "Do you know what a database is?"). I have to do all this knowing that the person asking the question doesn't have benefit of reading my body language or voice tone, either.

As a university librarian I have noticed miscommunication on many levels. Professors miscommunicate between themselves because they use jargon from their own field without thinking that the words or phrases they're using may have different meanings in other fields (or to laypeople). I often help bewildered students who need assistance finding "peer-reviewed" articles. Their professor has told them they need to use them, without explaining what that means. The student often assumes that I don't understand it either. Since they'd never heard of it, why would they think I had. The professors have forgotten that once upon a time they didn't know what a peer-reviewed article was either. They had to learn it, but it is now so ingrained as part of their work that they don't remember what is was like to not know.

I recommend this book for everyone. It is easy to read, jargon free, and based on scientific evidence.

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