Back in two…….hmmm?

World ClocksIt’s a common (sloppy, I would say) expression that is used these days – I have even heard it used on newschannels such as CNBC. As a physicist, it was rammed hard into me, back in school, that the units are even more important than the numbers. “If I send you to buy eggs, I would rather you return with the wrong number of eggs than the right number of something else”, my physics teacher used to say.

It’s easy to think the meaning is obvious – “in this context it’s obvious it must mean two minutes”, you might say.  It becomes habit. Imagine then, talking to someone far away, in another culture, not accustomed to this expression, where traffic jams and a laid back life are the norm – it will not be too difficult to see how the meaning could easily be mistaken to be two hours, two days or even two months!

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers” talked about how lapses in communication (because of a lack of clarity and mitigation of the urgency of a message) have resulted in airplane disasters. Another airplane crash investigation I watched in National Geographic’s “Air Crash Investigation” series traced the cause of the crash to be confusion between the the metric and imperial systems of measurements.

We all think in terms of different units – and that’s fine, but why can’t we just be clear about what we mean? How much effort does it take to utter the two syllabus “mi-nutes” or the words for any other units for that matter? I wish we all would make it a good habit to state our units – we really don’t need a huge disaster to happen before we realise how easy it is to avoid some risks.

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  • moraghsblog  On November 2, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    How often do people who say “Back in a minute” or “Just a sec” actually get back to you within those time frames. Seconds and minutes are frequenty stretched by a long, long way.

  • tinker3333  On November 2, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    That too – good point!

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