Monday, October 5, 2009

Generally Speaking

The other night, Iris and I were hanging out in the living room with our Dutch friend Paul. Paul and I were jamming with Paul on harp (harmonica) and me on piano.

I noticed that Paul tended to stay on the low-end of the harmonica seemingly shying away from the higher notes. What he was playing sounded great, but I thought it would be cool to hear some higher notes. So, I asked Paul about playing something a bit higher on his harp.

Paul responded, "Most harp players play mainly the lower notes of the harmonica."

I remember one college professor who, after reading responses to various essay questions would say, "That answer's not even wrong!"

This statement reflected my sentiments regarding "Most harp players play mainly the lower notes of the harmonica." It all started feeling like I was talking with Mark K.

So, I asked Paul, "When you say most harp players, what do you mean? How many harmonica players are we talking about here? What percentage of them constitutes most?"

Paul quickly recovered saying, "Well, I mean, most harp players that I know."

So, I said, "Cool, how many is that? What percentage of them are we talking about?"

Paul quickly recovered again saying, "Well, I mean, I've heard other people say that most harp players play mainly the lower notes."

(See what I mean about this sounding like I'm talking with Mark K).

Anyway, I grabbed my MacBook, plugged it into the PA and fired up some Blues Traveler whose lead singer and harp player extraordinaire, John Popper, is one of my favorites. John Popper plays all over the harmonica with virtuosic speed and agility. He's amazing.

After playing a couple of songs, I said to Paul, "I don't know about most harp players or not, but that's what I'm talking about."

On to Niagara Falls
On Saturday, Paul, Iris and I drove to Niagara Falls to show Paul a bit different part of America, namely Canada. I've got a couple of projects I've been working on, so yesterday afternoon, I sat in the hotel lobby with my Mac while Iris and Paul went to the iMax theater.

When they came back, they told me about what they'd seen and how much they'd liked it. Iris mentioned that there were many funny parts of the movie where she laughed, but none of those Americans laughed. Iris believes that the Dutch sense of humor is much dryer than the American sense of humor; indeed, we're often in movies where she will burst into laughter when everyone else is dead quite.

I said, "We're in Canada. How do you know that it was Americans rather than Canadians who were not laughing?"

Iris, looked at me and said, "Well, actually almost everyone else there seemed to be Japanese."

I looked at Paul and then back at Iris and said, "Wow, I think what Paul's got is contagious!"

So this morning, I started thinking about how pervasive the use of generalization is.

A General Epidemic
Generally speaking, and most experts would agree with me, the broad-based use of generalizations is generally out of control.

Just kidding. Actually, now that I've turned on my spot-generalizations filter, it's amazing to me how often we use them.

How often have you said "most people would..." (or some variant thereof) in describing a normative way of doing something?

Have you ever said, "I tried that before and..." or "We tried that before and..." as a way of dismissing a new idea as if your experience had anything to do with what someone else could do?

Or perhaps you've used "The thing about so-and-so..." or "The thing about thus-and-such" as a way to paint a picture of some one or some organization with a single brush stroke?

Even people who generally think quite clearly using well formed logic, specific examples and verifiable data can easily slip into the use of generalizations.

So, you gotta ask, "Why?"

What's Up with That?
I imagine that there are as many reasons for using generalizations as there are for anything else we do.

Sometimes it's because we feel a need to justify what we want. You know, "But mom, all the other kids parents are letting them..." At other times it's away to quickly dismiss something we don't want to take time to explore, e.g., "No one else is doing thus and such, so why should we?" And still at other times, it's arrogance or insecurity, or both. You know, "As a trained professional, I can tell you that..." or "Experts agree that..."

The thing is that, generally speaking, generalizations are less than useful.

So, I invite you this week to crank up your generalization spotter. When you catch yourself using a generalization, stop and ask yourself "why?"

When you catch someone else using a generalization, dive into specifics. Ask questions? Solicit details? Importantly, if you want to keep your job, do it in as loving and supportive a way as you can.

Happy Monday!


  1. Thanks for writing about this topic. It's one of the things you and me discuss regularly at home and we seem to have different opinions about it at different times.

    The Option Process Dialogue moves from generalizations to specifics: for example you say- "I hate it that Iris always makes general statements". Following questions would be: "what is an example of that?" and "what is a specific time that happened?" . during your dialogue you would probably realize that Iris doesn't do it all the time and you would figure out why you hate it when she does that. So it is very useful to move from generalizations to specifics.

    But then, we also use generalizations to create patterns that help explain the world in a way that simplifies our environment so we do not have to think about it all the time. When I see dark clouds outside, I bring a raincoat to make sure I am protected from the rain. I assume that I have more change to get wet from the rain because of me observing the clouds. You also use generalizations a lot in your work: you do not create software specifically for on purpose, you tend to want to write things that can be used in many different situations without having to be created over and over again.

    Last but not least: I am intrigued by Dr. Seligman's statement that you can grow happiness and positivism by generalizing. He says: instead of saying, "wow, see me, today I am supporting this blog by writing an response" I can make it bigger by saying: "I am a great supporter of this blog". I do have some unanswered questions about the implementation of this tool, but it is a very interesting topic!

  2. This was one of the blogs where I found myself going of in a different direction. In my head I kept thinking "why did you pose that question" - and by that question I ment

    "When you say most harp players, what do you mean?"

    Was it even a question? and how was it relevant? even if he had been refering to 10 billion harp players as most harp players, you still knew that at least one player did it the way you asked him to do it.

    This blog has inspired me to be more specific in asking for my wants, by changing small things such as changing from: do you wanna go to the movie with me? to "I would love to go to the movie with you, will you join me on sunday?"

    Thanks Mark, big hug



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