INFO281 Post 2: Say What You Mean

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

`It IS the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped…

Communication during an emergency, disaster, crisis, etc. is crucial, but it is all to easy for communication systems to break down.  A loss of electrical power can effectively knock out communications by television, internet, and radio; if cell towers are overwhelmed, it is difficult for phone traffic to get through.  However, even when all communication infrastructure is fully operational, it is still possible–and even common–for ineffective communication to persist.  The reason for this is surprisingly simple: people either can not or will not say what they mean.

In the passage from Alice in Wonderland quoted above, the issue of saying what you mean is presented as an issue of semantics and logic.  Alice considers the statement “I mean what I say” to be equivalent to “I say what I mean”.  The Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse all chime in with their own examples in an attempt to illustrate how this is not true.  Ultimately they and Alice move on to another topic of discussion, but the tension between “meaning what one says” and “saying what one means” is a salient one to consider further in the context of emergency communications, and the implications of each.

For example, many people use idioms to describe medical phenomena.  An example of one such idiom is the use of the term “awake” to mean “conscious.”  In the context of a person who is awake (as in, not asleep) and to some degree alert, this is close enough so as to be an acceptable means of communicating that person’s mental status–i.e. the speaker is saying what they mean and means what they say.  However, if the person is not awake (i.e. asleep) or is unconscious, saying that the person is “not awake” provides limited information to others who may not be on scene to evaluate the person’s mental status themselves.

In the case of a person who is unconscious, when you say that that person is “not awake”, you “mean what you say”–that the mental status of the unconscious person is what you would express as “not awake”–but you are not “saying what you mean”, i.e. that the person is unconscious.  This results in inefficient communication between you and the person to whom you are speaking, such as a dispatcher responsible for getting medical assistance to your location and who thus needs the best information possible.  If someone does not know how to “say what they mean”, this may prolong the time until medical assistance arrives, as additional communication is necessary to determine what is meant when someone says “not awake”.  For example:

Dispatcher: “Is he conscious?”
Caller: “He’s not awake.”
D: “But is he breathing?”
C: “He is breathing.”
D: “Does he respond when you call his name?”
C: “No.”

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this communication challenge.  Ultimately, solving this challenge depends on educating the public on how to communicate information in medical emergencies, disasters, crises of various sorts, etc.  An example of this in practice is the Tweak the Tweet syntax1 used to communicate information about needs and resources in disaster areas using machine-readable Twitter messages.  In this case, the public was educated about how to use the format by distributing (via tweets and retweets) a number of prescriptive tweets that illustrated the syntax for particular types of posts.  This is an example of how social media can be incorporated into public education about emergency communications, but more traditional methods (public service announcements on television and radio, mailing flyers, hosting local information sessions) are just as important as newer information communication technologies in reaching as wide an audience as possible.  This is no inconsequential task, but it is a necessary one in order to promote effective communications in situations where this is most critical.

  1. Starbird, K., Palen, L., Liu, S. B., Vieweg, S., Hughes, A., Schram, A., . . . Schenk, C. (2012). Promoting structured data in citizen communications during disaster response: an account of strategies for diffusion of the ‘Tweak the Tweet’ syntax. In C. Hagar, Crisis information management: Communication and technologies (pp. 43-63). Oxford: Chandos Publishing.

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