They’re just words

Words are hard. They have multiple meanings – by definition and perception.

I’ve never been a fan of modifier words when it comes to work – small, simple, easy, just, etc. Unless you’re also an subject-area expert, your modifier may be wrong, at best, or offensive, at worst. They’re more than just words.

I recently found myself committing this faux pas outside of tech.

Magically two nuts from my motorcycle’s manifold clamp came off, causing rides to be loud(er), hot(ter), and exhaust-y. It was a small annoyance until I noticed it really affecting performance, so I finally decided to do something about it. However, after trying for an hour by myself, and another hour with my father, I realized replacing two small nuts was more than my keyboard-laden fingers could handle, so I took her* to a motorcycle mechanic.

I’ve taken two other bikes to this mechanic, and he did some serious work to get a rusted GSX-R 750 up and running, so I feel comfortable with him. As I was describing the problem, I found the words inadvertently (because when you do something hypocritical it’s inadvertent, whereas others are callous monsters) pouring out of my mouth.

“It should be an easy fix.”

“An easy fix? Then why didn’t you do it?”

(Slightly fictionalized quotes due to memory and storytelling ease.)

I couldn’t believe I did that. With one simple word I trivialized his effort.

What I meant to say was, “It should be an easy fix with a skillset like yours, and the tools at your disposal.” Even so, trivialization. I apologized, told him I was often on the receiving end as a web developer, we laughed about it, and forgot.

It wasn’t an easy fix.

As it turns out there was a gasket behind the clamp that needed to be adjusted, which could only be done by removing the entire exhaust system.

With my limited knowledge and perceived scope of the fix, I incorrectly labeled it as easy. I believe this is where the root of the problem lies – assumptions based on limited knowledge.

How do we solve this? Don’t modify the scope or degree of effort required for somebody’s work. Let them do it. (If you’re also an subject-area expert and somebody over inflates, that’s another issue.)

Last year, Brad Frost wrote about the inverse of this problem where “just” makes the presumption that the other person has full knowledge to complete the task at hand. This presumption can make it harder or impossible for them.

“Just” is a dangerous word.

We approach problems equipped with our own set of experiences, perspective, and skills. It’s extremely challenging to step outside of our own perspective when communicating with others, but it’s increasingly essential to do so.

Brad Frost – “Just”

When I retweeted Brad’s article, my co-worker Mark shared his vimrc file, in which he highlights words to avoid. Coincidentally, the CSS Tricks article linked in his commit relates very closely to Brad’s post.

We need to be careful with our words. Clichés about their might are justified.

And for the love of kittens, stop saying the website is “broken.”

*My motorcycle is a female. Her name is Holly.