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Is This a Mediocre Title?
Recommendations on how to communicate more clearly by including information about the behavioral context with sentiment and impact.
Understanding the feedback we get from our colleagues can be challenging. We all have cultural and experiential differences that color the way we talk about our work. How does the intended sentiment of a word get lost in translation? Here I provide recommendations on how to communicate more clearly by including information about the behavioral context with sentiment and impact.
Even when we speak the same language, individual and cultural differences in the ways we communicate can blur our true meaning. This is important to recognize when we are interpreting the feedback that we receive from our colleagues.Asking around
I asked a few colleagues what they thought with a 1 question survey: What is the sentiment of the word mediocre? (select one):
Very Negative, Slightly Negative, Neutral, Slightly Positive, Very Positive
At a glance most folks consider mediocre to have a slightly negative connotation. However, one person considers this word to be very negative and another considers it to be slightly positive. If I receive feedback that my work was mediocre, what should I do next? This difference in the way people apply and interpret descriptions can create friction in working relationships.
How do the experts define mediocre?
Oxford Languages defines mediocre as both “of only moderate quality” and “not very good”. It does seem to have a negative connotation. However, when you look at similar words you might notice a slightly different story.
Ordinary: no special or distinctive features; normal.
Common: occurring, found, or done often; prevalent.
Commonplace: not unusual; ordinary.
Indifferent: having no particular interest or sympathy; unconcerned.
Average: constituting the result obtained by adding together several quantities and then dividing this total by the number of quantities.
These words don’t indicate something is not very good, they all indicate something is more common or uninteresting.
This isn’t the only evidence that some people don’t consider mediocre to necessarily have a negative connotation. Dictionary.com puts forward this slightly split personality definition where mediocre means “ordinary...neither good nor bad” as well as “not satisfactory”.
The mediocrity principle is the philosophical notion that "if an item is drawn at random from one of several sets or categories, it's likelier to come from the most numerous category than from any one of the less numerous categories”. Can’t the most common outcome be good?
Would you eat mediocre TexMex?
To understand how people use language we should consider our different backgrounds and individual differences. We love tacos in Austin, Texas. I have spent more than a few afternoons debating where to get the best tacos in town. This may be controversial, but as a native Californian I find most TexMex to be mediocre. My partner, a native Texan, agrees - pretty mediocre.
What stands out here is that he is delighted by TexMex and I always prefer eating something more authentically Mexican. How can we both think TexMex is mediocre and have such different feelings about what that means?
Data from Mechanical Turk
Mechanical Turk is a great resource for asking a panel of users what they think quickly. I had never used MTurk before and found it very easy to set up and run using basic HTML and the packages provided to collect data.
It is possible that people have different sentiments for the word mediocre because it depends on their prior experiences that were ordinary. For example, for me mediocre pizza sounds pretty ordinary and acceptable for lunch today however mediocre sushi sounds a little gross and unacceptable.
A robust sample
I also only asked people that I know closely and this is a biased convenience sample. Because I am only asking friends and family, I am only understanding what my circle thinks about this word. It would be nice to ask a group that is more representative. Do these findings generalize to more people?
I used Amazon Turk to ask a pool of users about their negative or positive feelings about mediocre pizza or fish. I narrowed down who was qualified to those that have a highschool diploma in the US because I wanted them to be familiar with the word mediocre. This data will help us understand whether the context can affect our negative or positive feelings towards the experience even when we use the same word to describe it.
If people held the same sentiment for mediocre, we would see a similar distribution of responses for pizza and fish. However, we see differences emerge when we ask about different food experiences.
People’s self reported sentiment for mediocre fish tends to be skewed more negatively. On the other hand, mediocre pizza has a more uniformilly distributed rating where more people report a neutral or even a slightly positive sentiment.
There is a good amount of variance in the responses too. This demonstrates how individual differences in sentiment persist even when we describe the impact and behavioral context.
Together, we can see how difficult it is to provide clear and meaningful feedback when we don’t paint a specific picture of the behavioral context with sentiment and impact as we communicate.
Being specific about the behavioral context as well as the sentiment and impact facilitates clarity in communication. This is an adaptation of the SBI feedback framework that emphasizes a check to ensure you are clear about the sentiment of your comments.
Outlandish means something is unfamiliar. Unfamiliar items can be both good or bad. It isn’t really clear, and this has implications for how we receive and interpret that feedback.
impact missing clear sentiment, with behavioral context: Your progress is outlandish. Your work on the recent feature modified user behavior. We have seen a change in our metrics that needs attention.
positive impact, with behavioral context: Your progress is outlandish. Your creative solution was excellent and the new feature engaged users more deeply. Because of this, we are three weeks ahead in meeting our growth goals.
negative impact, with behavioral context: Your progress is outlandish. Your rushed solution wasn’t desirable and it drove users out of our experience. Because of this, we are three weeks behind in meeting our growth goals.
Feedback that describes impact with sentiment and behavioral context is most helpful in creating meaningful changes or reinforcing actions. This is because you are communicating clearly and building a shared understanding of what happened. I like to think about the ways my language could be misinterpreted and proactively write as clearly as possible using this framework. Try for yourself and let me know how it changes the way you work with others.
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