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I'm begin my inquiry with a short story, some background, and then I'll get
around to asking the question.  For Christmas I'd like the reading audience
to have the patience to make it to the end of this message, and the energy
to answer my inquires.

And two new front teeth for my son, if that's not asking too much.


- Story:
I've worked within an international context for quite some time, and given
the nature of our work the language of choice is that mess some call
"English."

One evening I was involved in a video conference with some co-workers in
India and after hours of painful work we finally agreed upon an
architectural design.  I sat back, smiled, and clapped my hands exclaiming
"I'm PSYCHED!" immediately detecting tension from our friends in Bangalore.

Turns out that my personal definition of "psyched" wasn't adequate for me to
anticipate its effects on my Indian friends.  Within their circles that word
means that one is ready to fight.  For them the mysterious timing of my
exclamation was pretty disorienting, given the extreme nature of its
localized definition.  It took a little while to bring the group back to a
comfortable state, given the crippled nature of video communication.


- Background
(Disclaimer: I'm a visual guy, so it helps me to understand abstract notions
by employing simple "tangible" illustrations.  I hope that my personal
examples make enough sense for the readers of this Email to understand the
question.)

Within the context of language, I visualize within my battered skull a
multidimensional frame of associations between words.  A three dimensional
thesaurus, if you will, with "words" acting as nodes.  I visualize threads
running between these objects, representing the dynamic associations between
words that give them a richer meaning and context.

Given this previous example, I had previously assigned the word "psyched"
associations to other words such as "excited," "happy," and "stoked" (I'm an
unreformed skateboarder.)  My experience with my Indian colleagues forced me
to amend the associations a bit, adding the words "fight" and "buzzkill"  I
would have learned little if I had chosen only to assign these new
associations within the specific context of "video conference."  Given this
new understanding, I'll think twice before using this word in the company of
Indians (although I've found it interesting that my wife, 1/4 Ojibwa-Sioux,
doesn't seem to mind.)

As I get older I continue to add words into this web that enables me to
communicate ideas with others, and through experience and observation I
learn which words fit into which context, enabling me to function as a
robust social animal.

Here's a quick quote from Peter Mark Roget (lead guitarist of Roget's
Thesaurus), given to make a point:

"However distinct may be our views, however vivid our conceptions, or
however fervent our emotions, we cannot but be conscious that the
phraseology we have at our command is inadequate to do them justice.  We
seek in vain the words we need, and strive ineffectually to devise forms of
expression which shall faithfully portray our thoughts and sentiments.
...we are driven to the employment of a set of works and phrases either too
general or too limited, too strong or too feeble, which suit not the
occasion, which hit not the mark we aim at, at the result of our prolonged
exertion is a style at once labored and obscure, vapid and redundant, or
vitiated by the still graver faults of affectation of ambiguity."

He says it well, but I had to read it five times to understand it
completely.

As I enrich my vocabulary I find that it actually hinders my ability to
communicate with others.  My mom often has no idea what I'm talking about,
and thinks I replace hard drives for a living.  I find that I have to employ
low tech proxies to communicate with audiences outside a particular domain,
leaving me with a feeling that perhaps they are missing the deeper meanings,
contexts, and ironies communicated by using more elaborate language.

I've seen lord knows how many products get shipped that do a better job
showing off than starting at the point the users understand, then growing
with them as the tool enables them to become more sophisticated.  We are all
in agreement here.

But the problem isn't only with the product.  The words employed by
marketing and sales people of a company developing a potentially
sophisticated product are often socialized into using words that mean little
to the intended user.  The interface and flow may kick ass, but its
effectively positioned back into the hands of techy geeks by being marketed
over the heads of the intended audience.


- Question:
I'm currently enjoying the experience of conducting pure research,
relatively free of product schedules.  I seek this knowledge as seeds of
inspiration for software functionality I'm visualizing.

I'm trolling (I was raised next to the ocean) for metaphors and paradigms
that may mirror this understanding, assuming its accuracy.  Within an
international context, with "English" as an axis point, are there any
anthropological / sociological / etc. examples of this sort of "self healing
thesaurus" that the group can provide?  Particularly how each individual's
"dynamic thesaurus" works with others to develop a group understanding (or
context).  I'd also appreciate any pointers towards further ethnographic
work in a professional environment, if possible.

I've read a bunch of books, but am now seeking more, preferably within the
spirit of John Seely Brown, Duguid, Pirolli, Card, LaTour, etc.




Kent Dahlgren
Executive Bodyguard
Celstream USA
+1 503 975 5625

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