Tag Archives: metaphor

On Language and Understanding (and Misunderstanding)

Last week, I discussed what happens when I’m called in to fix a problem and it either disappears before I can solve it, or when it gets worse before it gets better. In the scenarios I described in that post, the clients were able to express their issues clearly–it just got complicated when the time came to resolve them. But what happens when the language gets in the way?

I recently saw the film Arrival, the central conflict of which concerns communicating with extraterrestrial visitors. First our human protagonists need to learn the language the aliens use, so the earthlings can speak back to the visitors on common ground. I realized that I encounter a similar struggle all the time, just trying to solve computer and other technological issues.

1. “Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?”

I was recently called in to help with a client who couldn’t get her email. “My Outlook isn’t working,” she said. I’m pretty familiar with Microsoft Outlook, the e-mail/address book/calendar program, so I came in prepared to troubleshoot the program and get her back up and running.

She didn’t have Outlook installed on her computer.


Jamie and Adam from Mythbusters would make short work of some of my clients’ issues, I’m sure. But they’d probably use explosives.

As it turns out, she was using a web browser to go online to Outlook.com to check her email on the web. The browser was having some issues, so she couldn’t get to that website. I couldn’t have solved the problem until I saw what she was experiencing; because in my mind, it only made sense that her “Outlook” was one thing; when to her, it was something else altogether. So now, in addition to my litany of questions starting with, “Is it plugged in,” now I make sure to ask just what program, exactly, is causing the problem… even if I think I know which one it is.


Yes, but which Outlook?

2. Memory vs. Storage, and the Fat Phone Cord

Terminology in any field can cause communication issues (just ask your local doctor or auto mechanic). Computer jargon can be especially arcane, because some of the terms are too easily confused for one another.

For example, all too often I’ll have a client mistake memory for storage. In computers, both can be measured in gigabytes (GB). Random Access Memory (RAM) or just “Memory,” is made up of chips that (as of this writing) typically store around 8 or 16GB, but only while the computer is on. Storage, on the other hand, either in the form of a Hard Disk Drive (HDD) or Solid State Drive (SSD), can run into the thousands of GB (and a thousand GB is a Terabyte, or TB) and stores data even while the computer is off.

Techtarget.com goes into some detail about the distinction:

Both terms are used to refer to internal storage space on a computer. Memory, usually referred to as Random Access Memory (RAM), is the place where an application loads its data during processing, while a hard disk drive (HDD) is usually the place where data is stored for long or short term retention.

And so, if a client is getting “low memory” errors, deleting files from his hard drive won’t solve the issue, even if it does indeed free up “gigabytes.” Usually, quitting all the open programs is the best fix for a low memory issue.

Another scenario in which terminology can either help or hinder involves networking cables. When I try to talk clients through their issues over the phone, I try to visualize their setup so as to adequately guide them through the solution. If a client is having network connectivity issues and I know they’re not using wi-fi, I’ll ask them to inspect the cord from their modem or router to their computer. Remember, I always try to confirm if it’s plugged in.

A typical network cable uses an RJ-45 connector, which clicks in to the jack on each end, much like how a telephone cord’s narrower RJ-11 connector does. Based on its similarity, I’ll often describe a network cable as a “fat phone cord.” Of course, if I’m dealing with more advanced clients, I can refer to “Ethernet,” “Cat.5 (or 6),” or the aforementioned “RJ-45.” All of these terms apply to the same thing, and that multitude of choices tends to cause more problems than it solves.


A typical telephone cord (left) with its RJ-11 connector, and the larger Ethernet cable with an RJ-45 plug above it.

3. “Sokath, His Eyes Uncovered!”

Finally, one of the most valuable tools in my communication arsenal is metaphor. I think of the “Darmok” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when Capt. Picard has to communicate with an alien using the language of metaphor. It’s a fascinating concept, but it’s not just the stuff of science fiction: I use metaphors all the time to make technical concepts easier for my lay clients.

For more on Darmok, The Atlantic has a great essay on the episode here. The episode itself is available to stream or download at several sites, shown here.

Remember the client who confused memory and storage?

Picture a juggler, with a backpack full of beanbags on his back. He’s juggling a few beanbags. Your computer’s storage (be it HDD or SSD) is that backpack. It’s got everything you need, whether you’re using it or not. Your computer’s memory, on the other hand, are the free hands with which you can juggle. The more “hands” you have, the more you can juggle (and some computers are trying to juggle “one-handed!”)

I was speaking metaphorically, Ralston!

I had another client who decided she needed a new computer, because hers was going much too slowly on the internet. A slow computer is a genuine concern, but it’s always important to run a speed test on your internet connection, using a few different devices, before blaming the computer. I use a combination of Netflix’s fast.com and Ookla’s speedtest.net. If the connection is slow across the board, it doesn’t matter how new or fast your computer is. Think of it like this: if your driveway isn’t paved, it doesn’t matter how new or fast your car is; it’s still going to be a bumpy ride. Just remember when you get angry at your computer for being slow: “It may not be the car at fault, but the driveway.”

A view of Hall Street  from Institute Ave.

By all means, get a new car if it’s time. But for goodness sake, get that driveway paved, first! (Source: Worcestermag.com)

I may never be asked to communicate with aliens in a first contact scenario. But I take comfort knowing that I’m doing what I can to help my fellow earthlings communicate with their devices–and each other–a little more easily. ■