Thursday, August 27, 2009

Do you have a partner?

I taught Professional Writing to a class of working people Tuesday evening in the Masters of Public Management program at the Heinz College of Carnegie Mellon University. The class began at 530pm and lasted with no breaks until 800pm. It made for a long day, especially because I began teaching at 900am that morning.

I gave my introductory lecture and used my best jokes with the audience of 17 students, most of whom, like me, had been working all day at hospitals, insurance companies and other businesses around Pittsburgh. The students in this class, as befitting the CMU profile, consisted of people from Japan, China, Turkey and, of course, America.

Near the middle of the class as part of a lengthy discussion of communication, I asked the students to find a partner, one to be the sender of a message, the other to be the receiver. I was going to ask them to replicate a study done at Stanford University whereas the sender, using a pen or pencil, taps the melody of a song to the receiver who must identify the song solely by the tapping.

The experiment works beautifully to demonstrate several issues about communication. For one thing, when nine or ten people start tapping on their desks, they create a lot of NOISE and distraction, typical of any communication environment. Usually in my classes the students are from varying countries and they don't know the same songs. And, always the students demonstrate the problem known as "The curse of knowledge," that is, the problem that occurs when senders of messages who know their messages too well try to communicate with audiences who may know little to nothing.

In the Stanford study 50% of the senders thought they could successfully tap the song to the receivers, but only 2.5% succeeded, proving that most of us are, indeed, cursed by our own knowledge. We send messages and assume that the audiences have the same knowledge, interest and enthusiasm that we have. The curse is so strong that when the students tap the songs they can hear them in their heads and don't understand why the receivers can't hear them as well. Typically, in my classes the success factor mirrors the Stanford success rate, about 2%.

So, as I was beginning the exercise, one that the students always find enjoyable, I said, "Everyone get a partner." After saying this, I noticed that a few students were not moving. So, I addressed them directly and said, "Please get a partner." A few of them looked at me with blank expressions. Finally, as a result of the late hour, I suppose, I became a little irritated and looked at one man from Turkey and in a little louder voice said, "Get a partner. Now" He didn't move.

Frustrated, I asked, a little too harshly, "Do you have a partner?" He looked at me and said quietly and humbly, "Yes, my wife."

I was shocked and embarrassed and immediately understood that I had suffered the curse of knowledge. I assumed he defined the word "partner" in the same way I did. And, I learned a valuable lesson from the exchange. We can not assume that even the simple word "partner" in the context of a classroom means the same to everyone. When I told him to get a partner, he must have been tremendously confused. "How do I get my wife here from Turkey?" he may have wondered. He was confused, I was irritated, the class was watching - the situation could have escalated...over a single word.

We had trouble communicating and I imagined what must happen on an international stage as countries and their diplomats struggle to understand each other and struggle to maintain peace among each other trying to use language as their medium. I learned a valuable lesson, one that I won't soon forget. Don't assume that any word or symbol has the same meaning to everyone and be patient. If you don't, you won't have a partner!

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