​Computers, Jokes, and… Shampoo?

I was reviewing some notes of mine on audience analysis this week, and it made me realize how I change my way of communication based both on who I’m talking to, and on the topic at hand. I was surprised at how often I do this without even thinking about it. Even as I started this post, I wanted it to be a fun little essay written for a casual reader and, without even trying, it took on an easy-going, personable tone instead of, say, the stodgy, hoity-toity style of a report written for an English professor.

It also occurred to me that my emails to friends are more casual than when I’m emailing a company, or an organization, or a professor. Also, when doing replies or comments on any kind of discussion board, if it’s a simple reply to some light-hearted post, it’s friendlier, with more slang, and fun little quips and jibes. But for something more official or serious I communicate in a professional tone.

There’s a big difference at work, too, depending on whether I’m talking to upper management, my immediate supervisors, or my coworkers. And it depends on the topic. With my superiors, if we’re just having a casual conversation, the tone is different than when we’re talking about something to do with work. There is also a big difference when I am offering an idea for improvement versus a complaint about something I’m upset about. The ideas come across more informative, but the complaint is more like a persuasive essay.

The other day I also noticed a difference when speaking with my relatives about one of my former computer classes. I found myself having to pause often to explain what I meant by Java, or C#, or looping, or binary. When I’m talking with my computer buddies, those words just fly off the tongue with the speed of a 4Ghz processor. But not so with my other audiences. Case in point: Did you know that counting in binary is as easy as 1, 10, 11? Huh? I should have gotten the laugh already, but instead I always have to include an explanation. In the binary numbering system, the symbol 1 stands for the number 1, while 10 stands for the number 2, and 11 stand for the number 3. Even then I usually only get a polite grunt from the non-computer audiences. But we’ll still stop there rather than try to continue on with an explanation of the mechanics of Base 2 versus Base 10. As for me, I thought it was hilarious when I read it in the Technical section of a magazine. What a difference the audience makes!

Hmm? What’s that? You’re wondering about the looping reference? Okay. That’s this one. There’s an urban legend that computer pioneer Grace Murray Hopper read the instructions on a shampoo bottle to “lather, rinse, repeat”. She followed the instructions… and soon ran out of shampoo! Don’t get it? Don’t feel bad. A lot of people don’t unless I include the explanation along with it. Even if they did get it a little and gave me a quiet little chuckle, I can almost guarantee they didn’t fully appreciate it. But that’s okay. It just means I need to do a better job of keeping my audience in mind and adapt accordingly. 

I’m sorry if not getting those jokes frustrates you. I know the feeling. I have gotten as frustrated as a slinky on an escalator when reading computer books that were written for computer scientists way above my level. I get as lost in those as I do hearing medical jargon instead of the common names. (Pardon me, but your epidermis is showing!) When telling you the story of falling on my butt at work, I’d much rather tell you I bruised my tailbone instead of telling you I have coccydynia in my coccyx!

If you find the word coccyx rather embarrassing, almost offensive, you’re not alone. I don’t like the way it rolls off my tongue either. That’s another reason we have to carefully consider our audience. Political correctness has become a major consideration when communicating in today’s culture. It seems that no matter what word you choose for different races, occupations, or sexual orientations, you’ll end up offending someone. Mark Twain can attest to this. He was just trying to make an accurate and honest portrayal of his characters’ lifestyles in the book Huck Finn and it landed him on the banned book list! If you’re not careful in considering who your audience is, you’re going to get into trouble!

Take my former favorite supervisor, for example. I always appreciated how he would stand up for the workers under his authority, no matter who he was talking to. Well, one day he was told to do something to one of his subordinates that he considered mean-spirited and almost unethical, so he refused. They wrote him up. In searching for a shoulder to cry on, he sent a ranting email to one of his colleagues. It was someone he considered a close friend, so his language and attitude got a little colorful. That wasn’t the bad part — he had considered his audience and communicated accordingly. Unfortunately, he didn’t do a final check before he hit the Send button, and… woe of woes… he sent the email to EVERYONE in his work contacts address book! Ouch! Needless to say, he was terminated immediately.

Which just goes to show: Don’t just consider your audience from the start, and in the choosing of evidence, and in the drafting, and throughout the entire writing process, but always make one final check before your final publication of the piece. (Like I’m doing right now.)

Oh, and before I go, since this post is more for a general readership and not computer gurus, I’d better remember who my audience is. If you didn’t get the shampoo joke, here’s the explanation. It’s a reference to how computers will mindlessly follow instructions, even if it results in an endless loop. So Ms. Hopper is joking that if she were to follow the directions the way a computer would, sooner or later she would run out of shampoo since they never told her when to stop. She would lather, rinse, lather, rinse, lather, rinse, lather, rinse, ad infinitum (or until she ran out of shampoo).

Even shampoo bottle manufacturers need to consider their audience!

Who’d a thunk it!

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Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, I invite you to check out what I think of as my best work on “My BYOB List (My Personal Favorites)”.

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