On Platitudes

By: on April 24, 2018

I hope we can agree that ad hominem attacks in discussion are undesirable, but I’ll suggest that platitudes can sometimes be the other side of the same coin, it’s rebuke being delivered in a wrapper of inoffensiveness.

“A remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.” Oxford Dictionaries

To distinguish a platitude from something merely banal, try to state the opposite of it and see if it still makes sense. E.g. the phrase “We should lower taxes” is often used as a seemingly irrefutable political position, but the opposite ”We should raise taxes” is a position that could plausibly be argued (if, for example, public services are currently underfunded). Therefore the former is not a platitude. On the other hand “I want to keep our children safe” seems impossible to negate: “I want to keep our children unsafe”. Really? Throw them to the wolves and see what happens? Send them to school surrounded by guns? (maybe I need a better example). The problem with platitudes in technical discussions is that they get used merely to terminate discussion.

Some examples for your game of Business-Meeting Bingo:

  • “I just want the simplest thing”—whereas the ‘simple’ in KISS and ‘minimum’ in MVP are useful notions, this phrase so often means “I don’t want to learn anything” or “Coordinating with other people is hard and messy”. The cry of “I want to keep things simple” can kill conversation with the result of teams, or individuals, heads down in silos churning out code with integration as an afterthought.
  • “This is the standard way of doing things”—While a common language and approach can aid communication in teams, an appeal to ‘standard’ can be quite aggressive. It implies there is only one way of doing things and any dissenter is foolish. Whose standard (there may be many)? When was it agreed? When was the last time it was challenged? If ‘tradition’ is the only reason for doing things then perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate.
  • “I want the best of breed”—thank you for pointing that out, personally I was hoping to integrate something less.
  • “We should be using best practice”—this is similar to ‘standard’. ‘Best practice’ depends on the circumstance, and if we’re engineering something new then maybe there isn’t any history or experience to compare with.

I had a hard time thinking of a conclusion to this post: an exhortation to ‘do better’ seems pompous and I feel unqualified for many concrete suggestions. Maybe we can just fall back on the general social ideas of generosity and humour. If someone supports their position by claiming ‘standard’, then perhaps jovially inquire if they are referring to ‘the’ standard or just ‘a’ standard. When faced with a drive for the ‘simplest thing’, agree that everyone wants that and then gently point out the pragmatic trade-offs for short-term gain and long-term maintenance. When asked for ‘best of breed’ inquire whether a Shire Horse or Racing Greyhound would be appropriate (hopefully generating a conversation about requirements).

That feels like best practice.

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  1. Tom Parker says:

    I’m now reminded of someone’s joke about “Well, we said we wanted ‘state of the art’. Unfortunately, we weren’t specific enough, and apparently the art in question was pottery…”

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