Up And Down The Ladder (Of Abstraction)

My grandmother always advised me never to walk under a ladder because it brings bad luck. And I watched enough cartoons to know that you usually end up with a bucket of paint over your head if you don’t follow grannies advice. While I didn’t make any special effort to avoid ladders, there is one I never saw coming and it ruined more than one relationship because I was not aware of it.

I am talking about the ladder of abstraction that American linguist S.I. Hayakawa outlined in his 1939 book “Language in Action”. I actually learned about this concept about 2 years ago but it took me until a few month ago to actually put it to work in my relationships. And as expected, it is much easier implemented in some of them than it is in others.

Let me try to explain the concepts in a few words and then look over an example. The idea is that our language is fluent in the level of abstraction we use. The opposing ends of the ladder are “very concrete and detailed” at the bottom and “very abstract” on the top. Communicating on the bottom is difficult and long winded but it allows you to bring your message across very clearly and most often it will be easy to Bessieunderstand. There is little to no room of interpretation. Communicating on top is easy and fast but there is so much room for interpretation that it is hard for your message to be understood and the understanding might be completely off.

Hayakawa illustrates that on the example of the cow Bessie. While the atoms and molecules that make up the cow are the very bottom, the concept of wealth is on the very top. Anything in between is more or less clear and open to more or less interpretation. For example, if I use the concept of wealth in a conversation, it is very unlikely that you will think of Bessie. The more we move down the ladder (asset -> farm asset -> livestock -> cow) the more likely it is that our communication lands in the same spot and we are talking about Bessie.

Now, how does that apply to relationships. Let me ask you: “What do you want in your relationship?” Most likely you will have thought of an answer that is in the upper half or even upper end of the ladder. As an example let’s use “excitement”. That is very abstract. If I communicate that to my partner, they might think of something completely different than I am. I need to look at that communication and refine what I want. And that is where I need to climb down the ladder.

same rungSo excitement can become “challenging physical activity”. That way I am a lot clearer already but it can still entail anything from climbing Mount Everest to hiking the Amazon or entering a martial art world championship. Next step: “low risk, challenging physical activity”. Ah, skydiving, Mount Everest and knife fighting are out of the running. Next rung: “Rock climbing”. Awesome, now we are getting somewhere. And I keep climbing down the ladder until I arrive at “Climbing in the Climber’s Gym on 5th Street every Wednesday at 2 pm with my friend Carl”. If I communicate that statement, there is very little room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

I leave you with a few questions to ask yourself:

Where on the ladder are you communicating? Do you run into a lot of miscommunication? What can you do to change that? Which direction on the ladder do you need to move?


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