Perhaps this career advice is obvious, but I can’t recall anyone explicitly laying out these three simple points when I was in school.
A dichotomy is an equal split, taking a subject and saying, “There is THIS or THAT. The end.” Implied in the dichotomy is choice. Choose one side of the dichotomy or the other because choosing both would be a contradiction.
True dichotomies follow two criteria:
- Everything you’re discussing fits into EITHER one side of the dichotomy or the other.
- Nothing you’re discussing fits SIMULTANEOUSLY in both sides.
Violate either principle and you commit the logical fallacy of “false dichotomy.” Not cool.
For instance, if Joel claims that all food is either sweet or sour, he violates the first criterion since some food is bitter, savory, salty, etc. He also violates the second criterion because some food is both sweet and sour at the same time. BOO Joel.
Legit dichotomies can be rhetorically powerful as tools for framing debates. But the greatest power in dichotomy is breaking one. Let’s discuss:
Everyone has received one of those texts. The kind that makes you tilt your head or curse. Does he really hate your new shoes? Was he teasing you? WHAT IS HE TRYING TO SAY?
Meaning and intention rarely coalesce in written communication, and the shorter the text, the more likely you’ll misunderstand. Perhaps you read a message as “angry” when the sender was being flirtatious. Or maybe you responded to your boss with a “LOL” when she wanted your two weeks’ notice.
The problem with short, written communication like text messages is that people usually confuse description and prescription.
The basic differences between the two kinds of communication are obvious. Description focuses on what is:
Darren: Your sweater is made of wool.
Prescription focuses on what should be:
Paula: All sweaters ought to be made of wool.
But look what happens when description is confused with prescription.
Darren [to his girlfriend]: You got a haircut.
Paula: You don’t like it?
Darren: I was just making an observation!
Paula: Sounded like a judgement to me…
Oy. We’ve all been in Darren’s place—and Paula’s. Being misunderstood is no fun. And that brings us to texting. Watch what happens here:
Pierre [text]: Yo. How RU?
Daphne [text]: Super tired.
Pierre [text]: U don’t want 2 talk? (confusing description with prescription)
Daphne [text]: No! U asked how I was… (now a bit angry from being misunderstood)
Pierre [text]: LOL (not perceiving the anger)
Daphne [text]: Whatever. G’night.
I admit the conversation is a bit contrived. (Who really says “How RU?”) But it demonstrates a common issue that people experience every day—especially as the use of instant messaging and texting increases.
When emotional cues are missing, it’s easy to confuse description and prescription. That’s because statements about facts are also statements about values—but in specific contexts. This is important to keep in mind. Not every factual statement is a value statement in every conversation. To a clothing designer, “That sweater is made of wool,” might be an indictment of their work, but to your girlfriend, it should stand as an observation.
Luckily we can avoid confusing description and prescription by following a few basic guidelines for communication:
OK, so maybe it’s not that bad. But most work email needs improvement, right? Here’s some advice for being a better communicator via electronic mail. (I’m talking to you, too, managers.)
The problem most people have when sending work email is they don’t anticipate what the person they’re talking to doesn’t know. Put differently: it’s hard to get out of our own heads. We know what we want (usually), and we know what we know (usually). But we’re not good at giving that information to other people because we assume they know what we know!
That assumption is wrong. And it can lead to frustrating strings of email asking for clarification and passive-aggressive responses. To avoid email Hell, include these four points in your office communiqué: