April 3rd, 2006

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Linguistics; freelance linguisting; troubleshooting....

People tend to feel that serious communication breakdowns always are caused by Issues Of Great Significance. It would be satisfying to the linguist doing troubleshooting if that were true; in actual fact, the source of the breakdown -- the end of the string you have to pull to get rid of the knot -- often turns out to be something astonishingly small and of almost no significance. You can only find that source by careful and patient observation, and my own favorite metaphor for the process comes from cholera epidemics: I look for the polluted well. I start by finding a busy spot at the site where I can sit down and spend several hours just paying very close attention, discreetly, to the communication going on around me.

Years ago I was called in by a large hospital where communication had deteriorated so alarmingly that people were getting desperate. All sorts of remedies had been tried: Meetings had been held to let people express their grievances; the parking lot had been rearranged; the lobby had been repainted; schedules had been shuffled; new vending machines had been installed; two motivational speakers had been brought in. None of that had helped -- so they called a linguist.

The hospital was beautiful; it was laid out around a small central "atrium" area tastefully decorated with an assortment of big healthy plants, with corridors leading off in all directions. There was a receptionist on duty at a desk in that area, so that as people moved through the hospital in the corridors they could stop and ask her for information. I sat down in a chair behind a potted palm and made myself comfortable, expecting to be there all morning, and started observing; less than half an hour later I was pretty sure I understood what was going on.

People would come into the hospital looking perfectly normal and pleasant; then they'd stop at the reception desk in the atrium to ask a question, or just to say good morning, and they'd come away from that encounter furious. Over and over again, it happened. The receptionist was contaminating the language environment with -- so far as I could tell -- almost every language interaction she participated in, no matter how brief. She was a very angry person, and she was spreading that anger far and wide. People would speak to her, and she'd snap at them, and that made them just cross enough so that they snapped at the next person they spoke to, and everybody just passed it on, all day long and (because it was a hospital) all night long.

The next step was to find out what she was so angry about. The most efficient way I know for doing that is by having the angry person write out a Three-Part Message for me. [Posts on Three-Part Messages are at http://ozarque.livejournal.com/109401.html , http://ozarque.livejournal.com/110486.html , http://ozarque.livejournal.com/109957.html , and http://ozarque.livejournal.com/110211.html .] I explained the task to her, and showed her an example or two, and told her I was going to go get a cup of coffee and would be back in twenty minutes. When I got back she had a flawless Three-Part Message ready for me. As follows: "When they ask me to water the plants, I feel angry, because that's not in my job description."

I went to the administrator who'd hired me and told him about this, and he was not pleased. It was, he said, the stupidest thing he'd ever heard of, and the first thing he was going to do was fire the receptionist. "I wouldn't recommend that," I said. "She's the canary in your coal mine." And then we had this dialogue. He said:

HIM: "But we can't just let things go on this way!"
ME: "I agree. You can't."
HIM: "If I don't fire that woman, what am I supposed to do about her behavior?"
ME: "You call her in and talk to her, privately."
HIM: "And what am I supposed to say to her?"
ME: "There are two possibilities. One is to say 'I'm sorry you don't like being asked to water the plants, and you don't have to do that any longer.' The other is to say 'I'm sorry you don't like being asked to water the plants, but you have to do it anyway.' Which one you say is your choice. If you have anybody else around who could do the plant-watering, I'd recommend the first alternative."

He did what I suggested, and things got better at that hospital; it solved the problem.The hardest part was convincing the administrator that anything so trivial could be causing such an uproar.

That's always the hardest part. Once, at a hospital where I'd been called in because "the doctors and the nurses are at each other's throats," I did the necessary observing and had a short meeting with the nurses and discovered that the problem was the way the doctors were returning patients' charts to the nursing station -- by throwing them at the counter. Half the time the charts missed the counter and fell on the floor, and then they had to be picked up and put back in order; sometimes it was worse than that. I met with the doctors and explained the problem, and we had an interminable discussion that went like this:

ME: "The reason the nurses are angry is because you doctors throw the charts when you return them to the nursing station instead of just setting them down on the counter."
THEM: "That's not it. That can't be it."
ME: "It is. They're angry because you throw the charts."
THEM: "No, they're not. They're angry because [X]."
ME: "No ... they're angry because you throw the charts."
THEM: "Oh, come ON! That's ridiculous. They're angry because [Y]."
ME: "No ... "
[Vamp till ready]
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Linguistics; applied linguistics; in case you haven't seen this yet ...

My nomination for this year's Best Linguistics April Fool's Day Article or Essay goes to
Roger Shuy's "The LMU: A New Formula for Measuring Effective Writing," at http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002978.html#more .

Sample:

"The research team, which included a classroom teacher, first investigated various speech acts, excluding agreeing, requesting, giving opinions, etc. before hitting on those speech acts that came closest to reflecting real fluency -- the students' ability to communicate effectively their wrath, meanness, ill-temper, rudeness, insults, and disdain.  

Thus, the researchers came up with the length of mean utterance (LMU) to replace the mean length of utterance (MLU), suggesting that it should be used in future studies of written language fluency. According to this study, students who remain focused longer on meanness and rudeness invariably display the greatest progress in their ability to produce effective written texts."
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Writing science fiction poetry; recommended link...

Greg Beatty's new article about the Rhysling Award science fiction poems -- titled "Reading the Rhysling: 1979" -- is online now at Strange Horizons, at http://www.strangehorizons.com/2006/20060403/beatty-rhys2-a.shtml . The poems he discusses this time are Michael Bishop's "For the Lady of a Physicist," Duane Ackerson's "Fatalities," and Steve Eng's "Storybooks and Treasure Maps." Recommended.