September 18, 2007

Challenging Problem Abbreviated, B****!

I like words. I think I like them because they’re so useful.

Even though I have a fairly liberal attitude about language, I like precision, too.

A couple of years ago, I started noticing at work that whenever we ran into a roadblock in development I would say we had a “problem”. Whenever I was planning ahead and I identified some unanswered questions or some sort of hurdle we were going to have to overcome, I would also describe that as a “problem”.

I felt my language was too negative. I seemed to be talking about problems all the time.

So I started trying to use the word “challenge” to describe problems that we were anticipating. “We’ve identified a few challenges to implementing this.” It sounds more hopeful. A challenge sounds like a problem you’re ready to work through and solve. I like to use “challenge” especially when I have a plan to solve the problem. I fell back to using the more negative problem when we ran into unanticipated issues that were tough to resolve.

I felt that this gave a little bit more information about the situation and made the language a little less negative. What do you think? Have I been a little too sensitive about the word problem?

Grammar Girl

In other word news, I’ve been enjoying the Grammar Girl podcast. If you don’t enjoy podcasts, she’s got the transcripts up there, too. The last one I listened to was about Abbreviations, Acronyms and Initialisms. I learned something.

NASA is an acronym, but FBI is an initialism. I always thought that if you form an abbreviation using a bunch of letters from the abbreviated words, you’ve got an acronym. That’s not the case. It’s only technically an acronym if you can pronounce it as if it was a word. Eff-Bee-Eye is not pronounced as a word, just as the initial letters of Federal Bureau of Investigation. Thus, it’s an initialism.

In the world of computers, I have never heard anyone make that distinction. In fact, the Computer Desktop Encycolpedia calls XML an acronym. You pronounce it “Ecks-Em-Ell” so this is a different interpretation of acronym1. That’s too bad, because the formal distinction seems significant to me. In a technical field, we should be used to striving for precision. Let’s call it an initialism, why don’t we?

If techies can show their cleverness with things like recursive acronyms, we ought to be able to handle using the right word for things that aren’t acronyms.

In any case, check out Grammar Girl if it seems up your alley.


Finally, in word-related news, Isiah Thomas is in trouble, accused of sexual harassment.

Words are fun, but everything useful eventually gets somebody into trouble. The outrage in the media seems to focus on whether or not Thomas used the word “bitch”, and what he thinks about the appropriateness of the word when different people say it. They have him on tape indicating that it’s more acceptable for a black man to call a black woman “bitch” as opposed to a white man saying the same thing. I think he almost got it right when I heard him tell the press that it’s never appropriate for a man to use that word to refer to a woman. It was PR right — it’s certainly the right thing to say when you’re accused of sexual harassment. And it’s also a good general rule for the workplace. “Don’t use it” is a rule of thumb you can live with.

However, the more these sorts of stories pop up, the clearer I get in my opinion about these hot button words like “bitch”, “nigger”, and others which we feel the need to refer to as “the n-word” or “the b-word” when the media covers them2.

I think my initial opinion was that everyone should have the same rules for using words. However, that conflicted with my other belief that context and intention are extremely important. Clearly, the speaker is part of the context. Of course, this complicates the question because it requires you to examine the context and try to understand a person’s intention. In today’s sound-byte world of news there is time for neither of these things.

That’s a shame, because forcing people to interpret intention should immediately bring the principle of charity3 into play, and would be useful in calming down the national outrage machine that fires up any time any celebrity opens his or her mouth.

People responding to CNN on this issue seemed to focus on the race aspect of the context. This is typical, because it is a hot button. It is more important to focus on whether there was workplace bullying going on, not whether he’s black or not. If he was using degrading language, he was bullying her. It’s that simple4.

Back to the word “bitch” — context is important. If your male supervisor calls you a bitch in a meeting, that’s inappropriate whether you’re white, black, or a man or woman. Men also find it pretty offensive to be called a bitch.

Maybe the problem is that certain uses of derogatory words assume a certain kind of relationship. I can imagine being called a bitch by a close friend in a joking moment. I wouldn’t be offended. But that’s because of the relationship. The idea that a black man can assume he’s free to call a black woman a bitch is a racist idea.

If you assume someone else is something because of their skin color, that’s racism. If you assume that they have a certain experience because of their skin color, that’s racism. If you are assuming you have a certain relationship with someone else just because of their skin color, that’s racism.

The correct context to consider is your real relationship, not some assumed relationship based on a racist idea. So, until you know what sort of a relationship you have with a person, keep your language on the more professional side. And err on the side of caution if you’re somebody’s manager. You’re never wrong when you’re too professional with your subordinates.

1 Throwing a curveball in there, XML may not technically be an initialism, considering that the “X” comes from the second letter of “extensible.” Technically, not an initial. But perhaps that’s splitting hairs.

2 I used “B****!” in this entry’s title because titles are without context. Words without context are open to misinterpretations — both honest misinterpretations and intentional misinterpretations by people who don’t like you. Because of this, you need to be careful with your words when you have a lot of enemies. This is why politicians and celebrities are always in the news for their language. People like to hate them. But within the context of a blog post, if my intention is to talk about the word “bitch” it seems silly to refer to it as “the b-word.” It’s not that I don’t care whether you’re offended, it’s that I don’t want to insult your intelligence by implying that you can’t tell my intentions from context. If someone didn’t like me and attacked me because of my use of the word “bitch” in this article, they’d just look stupid. And I’d laugh at them. And you would, too.

3 The principle of charity is a philosophical approach encouraging you to assume the speaker’s argument is rational. My use here is probably a little closer to the principle of humanity — I’m arguing for some charity and humanity in interpretation until proven otherwise. This does not mean you won’t object to the interpretation, perhaps outrage is warranted. But it is useful and fair to look for less objectionable interpretations first.

4 Workplace bullying can be more than just sexual harassment. I think we focus too much on sexual and racial harassment and not enough on harassment in general. Not to downplay sexual harassment at all, I think the generally higher acceptance of nonsexual workplace bullying actually provides cover for other types of workplace bullying. We should strive to limit bullying in general and stop it from becoming a race or sexual issue.

Posted by James at September 18, 2007 8:19 AM
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The acronym thing has bothered me for a while. When people say something about having too many acronyms or creating a new acronym I am constantly saying "that's not an acronym, it doesn't spell anything" I'm not sure I'd call NASA an acronym either to be honest.

OK I just looked up acronym on line and the whole must form a word thing seems to have gone by the wayside. Who says there's no such thing as evolution. Just look at language. I'm still not using irregardless though.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at September 18, 2007 10:47 AM

On the word thing. They're just words so I don't really care what words you use. It's the intent and context behind them that's important. For instance, the whole Don Imus thing. He obviously was just trying to be funny (and in that particular instance failing). That's not the same thing as someone using the same words in a hateful way.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at September 18, 2007 10:50 AM

I would not call NASA an ancronym, either. It's not like, for example, SNAFU (which is now snafu).


Main Entry: 1sna·fu
Pronunciation: sna-'fü, 'sna-"fü
Function: noun
Etymology: situation normal all fucked up (fouled up)


Main Entry: NASA
Function: abbreviation
National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Posted by: Patti M. at September 18, 2007 10:57 AM

Hey, a colleague of mine just called me "bitch" today, so this is a timely entry! But he called me that because he's blonde and my Bad Joke of the Day was a blonde joke, so he's entitled to call me that. This time, anyway ;)


Posted by: mjfrombuffalo at September 18, 2007 11:02 AM

I have used "issue" in the past to describe something in a neutral way but in general I'd rather stick with plain language and call a spade a spade. I guess tone of voice and context determine whether a problem comes across as a fun logic challenge or as something embarrassing that must be resolved quickly.

Posted by: Mike at September 18, 2007 11:02 AM

I don't hate "challenge" automatically, but I don't like it when someone (usually a manager) uses it to describe a problem that someone else is going to deal with. It is condescending. I know I'm going to take one look at it and say "this looks more like a problem to me."

I might refer to one of my own assignments as a "challenge," but if my manager says "I have a challenge for you," she had better be talking about arm-wrestling.

"Issue" really is a good compromise. "You're probably going to see this as a problem, but I'll let you decide how bad it is."

Posted by: Julie at September 18, 2007 11:17 AM

You are right. Context is important. And Isaih's context seems to be pretty racist and sexist. I don't see context as "I'm black, so it is ok for me to use this word." Like you said, that's racism.

Posted by: briwei at September 18, 2007 11:36 AM

Good point about context, Julie.

Patti: I disagree about the distinction between SNAFU and NASA. I would agree that there is a distinction between the acronyms GNU and NASA, because one mimics an existing word and the other one does not. However, the distinction between NASA and SNAFU is between a noun and what could be considered a proper noun. NASA and SNAFU are both abbreviations.

If you want to argue that it's now "snafu" -- a noun and not an abbreviation, then it's no longer an acronym either. Because an acronym is an abbreviation, and that aspect of snafu has merely passed into its word history rather than people actually invoking the full, original meaning of the phrase whenever they use the word.

I suppose it's a matter of style, but in any case, that's where I stand on it.

Posted by: James at September 18, 2007 11:45 AM

To clarify, I don't think it's condescending to refer to "challenges" in the context you describe. OTOH, I do think it makes them sound easy, as if they are only minor obstacles. That may be a personal bias. Or maybe you call them challenges only when they really ARE minor obstacles.

It's only when you refer to a gold-plated bitch (there! I said it!) of a problem as a "challenge," or when you're going to delegate it to someone else, that it smacks of euphemism.

Also, I don't see the word "problem" as strictly negative. When I look through a book of logic puzzles, I think of the medium ones as mere "challenges" and the tough ones as "problems." But I wouldn't buy the book if it had only "challenges" and no "problems."

Honestly, I don't know if I'm still making sense at this point. It's possible that my own criteria for problem vs. challenge are too tortuous and obscure to be meaningful to anyone except me. :)

Posted by: Julie at September 18, 2007 12:06 PM

Deciding between "challenge" and "problem" is an interesting "opportunity." Bitchin' post.

Posted by: ThirdMate at September 18, 2007 12:16 PM

Oh!! I forgot about "opportunity!" I'm sorry, that's the word I was thinking of that's really condescending. Scratch what I said about that before. I used to know a manager who would go around assigning "opportunities" in this kindergarten-teacher tone of voice that drove me crazy.

Posted by: Julie at September 18, 2007 12:30 PM

I suggest the use of the phrase "effing disaster" instead of "problem". It gets people's attention and by setting up bad expectations, fills your life with pleasant surprises when things turn out to be not as bad as you thought. Perhaps you think that a little cynical on my part, but that's your effing disaster. ;-)

AFA acronyms vs abbreviations goes, I generally think of acronyms as something you say as a word, instead of spell out. So from my perspective XML, HTML, and USA are not acronyms but NASA, NOAA, SCUBA, and RADAR are. But that's just my opinion and apparently the dictionary doesn't agree with me. Effing disaster, that.

Regarding the word "bitch", I agree it is definitely not okay for men to call women "bitch" whatever their skin color happens to be, and particularly not at work.

I have a love-hate relationship with the word. I like using it to convey emotion, but I dislike hearing it used to refer to people. I think typically the word is using to degrade and devalue women, which is why I don't call people "bitch" (unless it is in jest). But I like the word itself a lot--it has a lot of power. I have in the past described as "bitchy" certain mannerisms that I tend to find attractive. I think people who tend to end up being called "bitch" are assertive people who don't take shit from others. I admire that.

One phenomenon I've noticed in my adult life is the adoption of words by a group that are considered demeaning to that same group, and turning them into positive power words, like for example "queer" and others. I've been happy to see the word "girl" being changed from something condescending and diminutive into a title of respect and power. I hope stuff like that continues. Maybe someday "bitch" will be generally considered a term of respect? My 8-ball says unlikely, but who knows? Change makes life interesting.

I guess it is all about intentions, which brings me back to George Carlin who noted that there are no bad words--just bad thoughts, bad intentions, and words.

Posted by: Chuck S. at September 18, 2007 1:44 PM

I think Julie has an interesting point about "challenge" having the potential to sound condescending. It is something a teacher would say, or a maddeningly incompetent supervisor. And if you're going to call a spade a spade, then "challenge" is rather general. You could say, "bug," or if you're trying to be positive, "undocumented feature," or "unexpected functionality" (that needs to go away). There's also "research and implementation," for functionality that's never been implemented before.

Or you could do it Stewie Griffin military style, and say, "We have a Tango Delta seven-oh-six Bravo."

Posted by: Maggie at September 18, 2007 3:56 PM

I didn't throw out the word challenge arbitrarily, though. I am using it for anticipated things that we don't yet have a solution for -- things that are going to need creative solutions.

Later, they become problems if they are giving us difficulty.

"Opportunity" is definitely more condescending, because it's cheery-speak. "Challenge" isn't papering over the difficulty of problems; all of us certainly use the word "challenging" to describe things that are going to take expertise to resolve. So it makes some sense.

But I can certainly see how, in the hands of the right manager, it could become annoying. OTOH, I really do want to relay to my coworkers the difference between foreseen challenges and problems that we're having trouble with.

I saw the suggestion of "issue" earlier. I tend to use "issue" for items that come out of testing; a superset of "bug." A bug is a bug, but sometimes a bug report is an issue, but not a bug. For instance, the tester might report an issue that is undesirable behavior, but the software is performing as designed. That's not a bug, it's a feature -- or so the joke goes.

We call a bug a "bug". "Challenges" are something different.

Posted by: James at September 18, 2007 4:14 PM

James, in the terminology I've seen used, when the software is behaving as designed but the behavior is undesired, it's a bug. It's simply a bug in the design (or perhaps the requirements).

Posted by: Chuck S. at September 18, 2007 6:38 PM

That's too bad, because it leaves you without a word to distinguish a bug from a design issue. For my purposes, that's unsatisfactory.

Posted by: James at September 18, 2007 6:55 PM

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