Apples and Oranges

Posted on Tuesday, November 13, 2012 8:24 AM

The saying “that’s like comparing apples and oranges” always puzzled me a bit. It’s used to point out when two things are in such different categories they can’t really be compared, but from the perspective of the universe of all things, apples and oranges are so close they’re almost identical. I guess difference and similarity are relative, contextual, and in the eye of the beholder. (The saying would make sense to me in the context of “which tastes better?; maybe that’s how it got started.) 

Depending on the setting on your social “zoom lens”, two people can appear very similar or starkly different. And different differences matter in different contexts. E.g., the list of over 200 human universals listed in Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” ( E.g., George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” 

Two experts often come together because they share rare, specialized expertise. It’s great – finally someone you can talk to! What’s remarkable about this situation is not that miscommunication occurs (it happens all the time), but how much it surprises the participants. In some ways it is easier if you are working with someone from a different culture or discipline – you expect and are more likely to account for communication gaps.

I once worked with a company that did highly specialized research and development. Almost everyone had an advanced degree in engineering or science, and all communicated fluently in the language of mathematics. People would meet, talk, share equations, and walk away convinced that mutual understanding had been achieved. After such a meeting, Engineer Y might take a course unexpected (and maybe unwanted) by Engineer X. Engineer X would have an immediate and strong reaction: Betrayal! Incompetence! How could it be otherwise? That would be the only explanation if I were to behave that way!  What’s missing, of course, is real communication. In our next post, we will frame this issue and explore how to get better results.

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