On Semantics: When Ambiguity is the Enemy

Asking for directions at the Tower of Babel must have been quite an ordeal, with everyone speaking a different language.

I guess they had organizational silos way back then.

Fast forward a couple thousand years, and we still can’t get through a day without debating simple words and phrases. The latest roadblock: unpacking the overused and often misleading term “social media”. In general, the confusion often comes down to context, ie., how or where the words are being used. And as I’ve posted previously, in a virtual world, context can change quickly.

The fundamental question is this: Do you care if people understand you? I’ll go out on a limb here:

Our messages get misunderstood, if not ignored, when we’re not careful in choosing our words. It’s worse if we fail to consider what filters our audience may use to interpret them. Collaborators today have no choice but to recognize: ambiguity is the enemy.

The answer lies in renewed focus on semantics, the study of what words and phrases mean. Language is an inexact science. Fundamentally, it requires interpretation. And as message volumes increase and the rate of exchange accelerates, we need to get better at mastering it. Fast. Let me throw out some areas for focus:


    1. Try to be clear. Ok, it’s a stretch: it’s more fun to be trendy and cryptic. Twitter’s 140c limit is a great excuse for short cuts, substituting all sorts of phonetic (“sounds like”) spellings due to lack of space. But if it means you can’t be understood, re-group. Simplify your message.


    1. Dictionary. Don’t be shy. Save time debating. Look it up.
    2. Thesaurus. Are you stuck? Look to thoughtful lists of related words, aka synonyms. Stuck on a word that is causing endless debates? Find a better one.
    3. Learn the etymology. If you’re (still) stuck, check the dictionary or other sources to learn the origins of a word, what it’s fragments mean, and the history of how it’s been used. When getting it right really matters, this level of digging can really help.
    4. Authoritative SME’s. Use your favorite search engine, Wikipedia or Twitter to find experts. Try searching relevant hashtags. Reinventing wheels is a great exercise in creativity, but reinventing words and their meanings slows down collaboration. Find a source everyone can agree to.


    1. Domain. Everything that’s related to the topic you’re talking about.
    2. Understand Domain Boundaries. So you’ve got a domain. Where are it’s edges? What’s “in scope” vs. “out of scope” to your discussion? For important, longer-term collaboration, getting this right up front is important.  If it needs to change midstream, spend a little time letting everyone know and agree to the boundary change.
    3. Set Context, and try to hold it. In simple terms, this means staying focused on the topic at hand, keeping within the domain boundaries specified. This may be the single biggest “critical thinking” skill that virtual collaboration forces on us. It’s a challenge, because different contexts often imply alternate cultures, goals, and semantics. Pay attention to that. Starting a dialog? State the context. “Today we’re focused on  X in the context of Y.”


    1. Knowledge Management (KM). Since the mid-1990’s, a business practice focused on the identification and capture of the critical insights in an organization. By most accounts, this is evolving with the help of social media. Follow: #km #kmers
    2. Controlled, Shared Vocabulary. This is important where organizations or ecosystems need to agree on enough key words that its worth publishing the definitions to “lock them in”. Very helpful for structured collaboration in a specific, closed domain. (Note: We may need to find a more open-ended alternative for virtual collaboration, that allow working semantics to evolve in open domains, with vocabulary that is “guided” vs. “controlled”.)
    3. Solution Language. Often, a group can get traction through starting to frame the end state. In the process, common ground is established, and key terms emerge. What will a solution look like? How can we describe it? Who will be the major players, and what will be the outcomes?
    4. Taxonomy & Folksonomy. A taxonomy shows how words or topics relate in a “top down” hierarchy. Important in biology. Once important in classifying knowledge. Current importance debated, mostly by folks in KM. Not to be confused with folksonomy which is how words or topics are now getting tagged, forming an unstructured, crowd-sourced, “bottom up” view of topic relationships. A great current example of this is the use of hashtags on Twitter. These are created in a random fashion, but gradually gain acceptance (or not) among folks that see value in them. SME: @StephLemieux #taxonomy
    5. Ontology. This is the workhorse of describing relationships among abstract words, ideas, objects or topics. Requires more rigor, but it’s often worth it. Useful in framing complex domains or topics. Similar constructs sit at the core of conventional design methods.

    Yes, there’s a lot to this. That’s why its hard. And why its important that we get it right.

    Do you want to help fine tune the above definitions?  Watch for these definitions in wiki format, so we can work together toward a baseline of semantic concepts for virtual collaboration. If you already know of one, super, let’s not reinvent it ..

    Meantime, let’s focus more on what it takes to be understood. It can make our days go so much faster. I’ll try to hold up my end. Will you?

    12 thoughts on “On Semantics: When Ambiguity is the Enemy

    1. Chris, As someone who has spent 30 years writing professionally, I think you make some very good points here.

      However, speaking as someone who has spent 10 years working with disparate cultures, organizations and stakeholders, I’ve learned that sometimes ambiguity is a more reliable friend than any assumption of clarity.

      No matter how precicely we choose our words, we can never assume they will be heard or interpreted exactly as we intend by every recipient.

      Instead, I find that being deliberately ambiguous forces project participants to collctively negotiate the meaning that will apply to the context at hand. And for the duration, they will own that meaning and take responsibility for its maintenance.

    2. Thanks for responding with your thoughts on this, Steve. And it’s a great counterpoint ..

      I agree, we can never assume clarity, but I, for one, always seek it.

      When reflecting and adapting, diversity in our thinking (and yes, ambiguity) helps us identify new possibilities. That’s in the cognitive context, and critical for emergence. In my original context, though, re: language and communication, if we are ambiguous about our intended meaning, we can’t even have a productive discussion, whether it’s on philosophy or about getting directions. Take the case of 2 foreign languages, as the extreme: we tend to talk past each other. And in the wide open domain of public collaboration, I see that happen way too often. Constantly. Tweet by tweet.

      So maybe ambiguity empowers the thinker, but debilitates the communicator? Two sides of an important coin?

      Very curious what other insights might emerge on this.

      You’ve definitely got me thinking ..

    3. Pingback: Food for thought: how do we think about ambiguity? « Alice MacGillivray

    4. The focus on language is one that so often gets neglected and is something that is definitely worthy of greater consideration. I agree with you on that full stop.

      The term ‘social media’ is possibly the odds-on-favourite to win the 2009 buzzword of the year and with all such terms — think empowerment, community, network — they get used in ways that extend far beyond what the term’s originators intended. But I think, as much as I am not a fan of it’s potential for creating more confusion than clarity, this truly social construction of language is something that can’t be managed (well).

      In complex and chaotic environments such as those where communication is poor, confused, or incomplete clarity is virtually impossible. This is in large part due to the inability to see where you are in relation to everything else, because its all moving and changing so quickly.

      In areas where our communication is more complicated or simple, clarity is possible and the recommendations you’ve made offer some useful suggestions to those engaging in social media to follow. It’s very easy to slip into a parlance that both confuses and cheapens the message with tools like Twitter and I am all for being as coherent as possible.

      The Cognitive Edge Group have some great resources that look at this issue of knowledge management and clarity in complex environments if you or your readers are interested.

    5. Cameron –

      Sounds like you and I are a bit more closely aligned in our views than w/ those of Steve or Alice, though I can’t dismiss the points they raise: diversity of viewpoint (w/ inherent ambiguity) is a key factor in emergent insight. For deep thinking and creative expression (design, philosophy, literature, poetry) ambiguity and diverse views expand our possibilities.

      But I still think the context of the situation is critical. When attempting to communicate a point of view in a collaborative context, I come back to the need for maximum possible clarity .

      Without clarity, we can’t understand each other (and our divergent views). If we let ambiguity consume our conversation, how can we productively work together?

      Two of your thoughts resonated for me strongly as I read them –

      “The social construction of language”

      Language is, by it’s nature, social. But is this construction changing as we begin to shift the basis of our communication (virtual collab, lack of f2f, and n:n?).

      “In complex and chaotic environments where communication is poor, confused or incomplete, clarity is virtually impossible”

      To harness complexity, I think we’d want to change ‘impossible’ to ‘very difficult’ and apply everything I’ve written above. Perhaps that is why I feel so strongly about this. This stakes are now higher. We have to work harder to stand still. Advancement of any kind (or shall I say, survival?) means we have to get better at being understood.

      • Agreed. But, there are also times when right-thinking people deliberately use language that is ambiguous because their listeners do not genuinely want to hear the clear truth.

        Wife: “Honey, do these jeans make me look fat?”

        Parent: “Is that a candle I smell burning in your room?”

        Voter: “Will I get more services for less taxes?”

        So, why are very-sharp people (e.g., husbands, teenagers, and politicians) sometimes intentionally ambiguous?

        Because sometimes the (clear) truth hurts … them. So they fall back on ambiguity .. and let the listeners choose the meaning that they want.

        As the saying goes, “People hear what they want to hear.”

    6. Understanding is becoming a very tricky thing in the social media world. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I disengage a little from my steady all-you-can-consume media buffet that tends to fill my daily life over the holidays. Because social media plays a big part of what I study, it is something that I feel a need to immerse myself in. While always fascinating to be a part of, I find the relationship between signal and noise changing considerably in this new landscape. Not only has this changed because the volume of author-driven information that I am exposed to on a daily basis has ballooned (and continues to do so), but what is relevant – that is, what I seek to understand — has also been transformed.

      Where once there were a few articles, the odd website or book, and maybe a video or audio recording on a particular topic that I was REALLY interested in, there are now dozens or hundreds or maybe thousands of relevant, potentially useful sources. This means that there is a lot more to understand because the sheer breadth and depth of this content is so much more sophisticated and larger than before. And I’m just speaking about the relevant, credible stuff and not all the crap.

      When a person starts out drinking wine, usually the primary identifiers become ‘red’ and ‘white’ and then maybe ‘dry’ or ‘sweet’. But as a person gets more accustomed and interested to wine, the type of grape becomes an identifier, then region, then year, then varietal and so on. The volume of relevant information starts to get hard to handle. And if a person has more than one beverage interest, this can get intense.

      The same applies to knowledge industries. So while I agree that understanding is critical, particularly for these reasons, it seems that the strategies that we use to create understanding are more complex and that the strategies listed above might not serve us as well as they once did. That is not to say that they are not good ones, or to suggest that I have better ones at the moment, but there is something that feels a little less satisfying and, indeed, mystifying about trying to solve the problem of understanding in a social media world with the strategies that served us in other environments. This new environment is one inhabited by narrative fragments, 140-character messages, and URL shorteners and changes the way we mass communicate. It strikes me that we’re dealing with a whole new species of information (metaphorically) than just another variation on the same.

      I’d love to hear others’ points on this, because I don’t come with answers, just more questions and lots of interest.

    7. Well put! “There is something that feels a little less satisfying and, indeed, mystifying about trying to solve the problem of understanding in a social media world with the strategies that served us in other environments. This new environment is one inhabited by narrative fragments, 140-character messages, and URL shorteners and changes the way we mass communicate. It strikes me that we’re dealing with a whole new species of information (metaphorically) than just another variation on the same.”

      I saw the beginnings of this back in the early days of content management systems when the concept of “tagging” became more widespread. Finding one or two words with which to tag an item–with the assumption that anyone else looking for said item would choose one of those same words when searching — does demand, I think, a new level of precision or agreement of common definition. In the “new world” we struggle to have conversations about community, relationships, and social learning without common understanding of critical concepts like “network” (vs. say, “community” or “team” — see the Nov 19 #lrnchat transcript ).

      Your idea that we are entering an era that demands a new species of communication is an interesting one. I don’t yet know about that, but feel confident we will have to arrive at some common understanding to move many of our conversations forward in a way that includes everyone who wants to participate. Make sense?


    8. Speaking of clarity, might we be creating false dichotomies amongst clarity, ambiguity and diversity? I don’t THINK I’ve heard anyone claim that clarity, or attempts to gain it, are bad.

      For example, the idea of “locking in” a definition provides some clarity, but individuals’ understandings of the term will probably still vary, and depending on the intent and form of the “lock in” there may still be a climate that respects diversity of thought (or rebellion against central authority).

      It seems to me that the nature of communication is critical here. The podium presentation is very different than a dialogue. Sharing experiences through narrative or story is very different than stating a position.

      As an everyday example, I was in a boardroom with 15 people talking about a public sector knowledge management project. There was quite a bit of talk about clients and diversity of clients. I began to realize that the “IT people” were being very clear about a technical point and the “business people” were being very clear about a business point, but the points were different. Fortunately–in this case–they were compatible. I happened to be “bilingual” in this context; the differences were revealed and discussed, creating common context (a phrase that Dave Snowden has used to describe KM). The words were being very carefully chosen and the points were well articulated but different backgrounds had made true clarity almost impossible. And that was in a room of people working in one organization with all but two being white males from the area.

      Perhaps an important, related question in an increasingly global and complex world is how do we get organizations to slow down enough to begin to have some understanding of the perspectives in the room (virtual or otherwise)? I expect that we see examples every day in which we–or our colleagues–draw constrictive boundaries so that we can have [the illusion of] consensus and clarity quickly. And when we do that, what gets marginalized?

    9. Excellent comments. I’m seeing some forward motion and I think some alignment, which is good – because we’ll need an ability to get to semantic clarity in any virtual communities we hope to sustain (per my prior post).

      Some thoughts:

      @cdnorman (Cameron): The flood of information w/ social media absolutely increases the demand for filtering, and also aggregation. Who can we count on to survey and bubble-up the most important content? In my post, I argue it could be a SME. But last night, I read an interesting post on “Ambient Streams” from @edosegal on the evolution of web-based filtering.

      @janebozarth (Jane): Precision in tagging is key, given that tagging (blog keywords, Twitter hashtags) provides context and some hope for relevance. Have been wanting to check out #lrnchat ..

      @4km (Alice): Creating common context is a great theme, and perhaps the answer lies in a blend of top-down taxonomy and bottom-up folksonomy. Ultimately, we need something in the middle. I’m regretting my use of the term “lock-in” above .. the spirit of my comment was around “interim working definition” as a “stake in the sand.” Completely agree that understanding the communication context (board room, collaboration, town meeting) is fundamental to what it takes to drive a productive dialog.

      Are we all agreeing that boundaries must be visible, but movable? We don’t want a false consensus abruptly forced on us by an over-zealous process. What we’d lose is any true emergent value. We’d merely be going through the motions .. or per Steve Buckley’s point, providing lip service only, avoiding the hard work of actually addressing a problem ..

      Agree w/ @snowded that “consistent, common context” is the foundation. I like to call it the solution language. I think there needs to be a shared objective in any meaningful exchange, whether short-term, or long-term.

      From there, the debate can flourish, and any remaining cognitive ambiguities can offer the opportunity of diverse viewpoints @SteveBarth points out above.

      Are we coming together?

    10. Pingback: The Future of Electronic Communication is also the Past « Censemaking

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