How Not to Talk to Nontechnical People


angry baby at computer

Software engineers and other technical people often struggle to be understood by people who don’t share their technical knowledge. Their frustration is widely known; it’s led, for example, to a YouTube video with over 10 million views (and a rather lively comments section) depicting the plight of a software developer trapped in a roomful of corporate idiots:

I’m not aware of any similarly-loved video explaining what it’s like to try to understand software developers, and technical experts generally—but it can be difficult enough to make one question whether they really want to be understood. In almost all cases, they actually are making a good-faith effort to communicate; the issue is that these efforts often fail in consistent ways.

I thought I’d use a video from physics (a technical area in which I’m a layman) to explore these failure points. Here it is:

The Transcript

Here’s a condensed transcript of the conversation. Of course, it misses a lot of the video’s details, and the steady buildup of mutual frustration between the scientist and the layman interviewer, so it’s worth listening to the whole thing.

Scientist: “What I want to talk about today is: Do things touch?” [:07] “The important thing is we can have a very rigid definition of what contact means.” [1:40] Atoms don’t just repel, they attract because of quantum mechnics and then repel. [2:00] “Where we can define contact, very easily,” is where those attractive and repulsive forces are in stasis. [2:45]

Interviewer: “You’ve made a big point of ‘This is the definition of contact,'” but the two soccer balls in your hand aren’t touching! [3:40] “You kept the balls apart, you didn’t make the balls touch each other!” [4:10]

Scientist: “My concern is this idea,” which is false, that particles always attract. [4:40]

Interviewer: “Once they’re in contact, can they move any closer?” [5:05] “The fact that they move closer says they’re not in contact!” [5:30]

Scientist: “The thing I find concerning is that it’s only electron repulsion.” [6:00] “Let’s define what you mean by touching: Do you mean if the nuclear cores come together? …Those energy scales are completely out of reach.” [7:20] Contact, “in science, is pretty well-defined.” [7:40]

Interviewer: “If you can move the atom closer, they’re not in contact.” [8:00] “Here’s a scientific definition of what I think a normal person would think of as contact between two particles”: [9:05] “True contact is the point at which there are no Planck lengths between two electrons.” [9:40]

Scientist: “Fundamentally in quantum mechanics you can never have that.” [9:45] “You know from doing these videos over the years that we cannot define an electron like a particle like that. So therefore the analogy breaks down.” [10:10]

Interviewer: “I think your scientific definition of contact isn’t what the normal person thinks.” [10:40]

Scientist: “But you can’t extend what the normal person thinks down to the quantum level.” [10:45] “You’ve got to be very careful when you put analogies across to explain what the deficiencies might be in those analogies.” [11:55]

What Went Wrong

I believe the scientist in this video is brilliant, and he’s very coherent in a number of similar videos I’ve watched. However, I think this video results from his failure to communicate, in the following ways:

Indifference to the Initial Common Sense of the Audience

The question is a commonsense one, but the scientist treats commonsense intuition as an annoying distraction.

This is the major problem that crops up, again and again, in the video. The video’s stated purpose is to answer, for a nontechnical audience, the question: “Do things touch?”

Without answering this question at the outset, the scientist is off to the races with an exceedingly technical scientific definition of “contact.” As the interviewer points out, this definition of contact totally contradicts the commonsense definition: the soccer balls the scientist uses to demonstrate it don’t even touch.

What does “touch” mean to a layperson? It means there’s no space between one thing and another. But the scientist consistently ignores the interviewer’s suggestion that things don’t really touch because there’s still space between them—which is actually the simple, correct answer to the video’s question—because he regards this commonsense perspective as an annoyance.

The interviewer is ultimately forced to clarify, in as deeply technical language as he can, that the commonsense definition of “touching” is when “there are no Planck lengths between two [particles].” The scientist immediately jumps on this definition because it’s ridiculous from a quantum physical point of view—as if the interviewer has made a mistake, when in fact “That definition doesn’t work at the quantum level” is the correct answer to the intuitive question that the video exists to explore.

The interviewer ends the video by trying to make the philosophical point that people’s intuition is often unrelated to scientific fact: a premise that underlies the existence of the video series itself. The scientist “warns against” this as a problem, and the video ends on an angry note.

Fascination with an Off-Topic Technical Point

The scientist is very intent on clarifying that particles attract and repel at small distances, because of widespread confusion on this point among forum commenters.

Nobody ever asked this question, and answering it brings in a lot of obscure scientific language that serves to muddle the answer to the interviewer’s basic question: “Do things touch?”

Backwards Progression

The scientist consistely tries to build “chutes” down from his own understanding, rather than building a “ladder” up from the interviewer’s question.

Consistently through this video, the scientist attempts to build a “chute” from his own very specialized technical knowledge down to the ground level of his interviewer’s question and intuition. He is consistently annoyed by commonsense questions—like “The soccer balls aren’t touching”—because he regards them as irrelevant to this teaching process.

If the scientist had tried to build a “ladder” from the interviewer’s intuition to his own knowledge, he would have immediately answered the video’s fundamental question—”Do things touch?”—with “No, they don’t, because things don’t even look like particles at the quantum level.” He could then have built his scientific definition of “contact” as an alternative definition to the commonsense “Things touch when there’s exactly zero space between them,” and the video would have been much shorter and much clearer.

Let’s Do Better!

Understand both people’s intent and their incomplete initial beliefs when they seek your technical knowledge.

If you often talk to technical people: Have you ever had a conversation like this? If you’re a technical person: Have you ever done this to someone? I’m guessing the answer is yes.

The main takeaway seems to be: try to empathize with the intent of the question itself. Don’t just speak from your technical mountaintop, but understand what people intend—and what incomplete beliefs they’re likely starting out with—when they seek your technical knowledge.

A firmer grasp on these questions would likely have made this video much more pleasant, and much shorter; and it can do the same with technical conversations in our lives, as well.

Thanks for reading!

Image Credits: Summer

5 thoughts on “How Not to Talk to Nontechnical People

  1. George

    I feel like you’re misunderstanding the scientist in the video a bit.

    You say he could have summarized with “Things touch when there’s exactly zero space between them”, but isn’t that the opposite of what he was trying to convey? It sounds like he was trying to illustrate that things ‘touch’ via the repulsion of their electrical fields, so objects that we view as touching are, in fact, still separated by a measurable distance.

    He’s not redefining contact, but instead explaining that contact as a phenomenon doesn’t work like we might imagine when we look closely.

    Reply
    1. Fred Meyer Post author

      Thanks for writing! My understanding of what he means is exactly as you said: The idea of “zero space between things” doesn’t make sense at tiny scales.

      How I think he could have summarized is just to say, at the very beginning, “Do things touch? Well, by the commonsense definition of ‘zero space between things,’ no, they don’t—in fact, that doesn’t even make sense at quantum scales. Now let’s look at how else we might define ‘contact.'”

      Does that make sense? I likely could’ve written the article a bit more clearly (so a bit of irony there 🙂 ).

      Reply
      1. Drolyt

        The commonsense definition doesn’t make sense at the macroscopic level either. Imagine placing the palm of your hand against a wall. There is absolutely space between your hand and the wall, it is just too small to perceive. What is actually happening is the force your hand is exerting on the wall exactly equals the force the wall is exerting on your hand, and that is all contact really is. I agree the scientist did a horrible job explaining things, and I even agree with some of your reasoning as to why that is, but I disagree with your assertion that he should have answered “No, they don’t, because things don’t even look like particles at the quantum level.” because that would be wrong. The issue isn’t that there is some conflict between the common sense definition and the scientific definition, but that the scientist failed to explain how the common sense understanding arises from the physical reality.

        Reply
        1. Fred Meyer Post author

          As you said, the commonsense definition (“no space”) is never true. For example, if you had a medieval archer hit a target with an arrow and then asked him, “When did the arrow first touch the target?” he’d say, “When there was no space between the target and the arrow tip.” But of course there was space—the archer just doesn’t know about things at microscopic and quantum scales. The commonsense definition is always wrong, but good enough for humans to live our lives.

          So I think the video should have first started by acknowledging, and invalidating, the commonsense definition of touch: “Right, ‘no space between’ never actually happens because ‘two solid, soccer-ball-like particles bumping into each other’ doesn’t even make sense at quantum scales.” Then the scientist could have built from there, starting at quantum scales all the way up to the macroscopic world we perceive—the “ladder” approach.

          We may be saying something similar; are we?

          Reply
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