The Joys of Ambiguity

I have a strong affinity for precision. And it shows up in many areas of my life. For example, I much prefer the sciences and engineering (where you deal with precise, clean-cut, objectively measurable quantities) to the arts and humanities (with all their airy-fairy, wishy-washy woolliness). I mean, when you're asked a question in an English Literature exam like "In the novel 'No Longer At Ease', do you think that Obi Okonkwo was the architect of his downfall", surely the correct answer is either a clear-cut "Yes" or "No", not a lengthy essay that is neither here nor there. You don't agree? Then you won't understand why I'm still bitter at a certain secondary school teacher.

Then when I plan, I try to get every single fact that pertains to what I'm planning for. I need to know exactly what I'm doing, where I'm doing it, how I'm doing it, why I'm doing it, with whom I'm doing it and when I'm doing it. And even where I can't answer these questions, I try to come up with contingency plans to nail down these uncertain areas so that in the end, I know exactly what is going to happen when I execute my plan.

And needless to say, I can't stand the concept of 'Nigerian' (or is it African?) time - I just think it's a fancy way of saying 'lateness' or 'disrespect'. For me, three o'clock means three o'clock, as many slackers and dawdlers have found to their cost.

Yes - I'm definitely a man of precision. But late in life, I've begun to realise that there may be some advantages in not being so precise. Precision may work well in the inanimate world, but when you're dealing with something as unfathomably complex as Man, it breaks down very quickly.

I'll give an example to illustrate. Let's say you're walking down the street and you spy someone who you know, so you want to walk up to him and shake his hand as a demonstration of goodwill. Now if you're doing this the precise way, you'll approach him and extend your hand right out to the point where his hand should meet yours so that you can shake. The hope is that he'll do the same at the same time, so that both of you end up clasping hands.

But what if the person doesn't want to shake your hand (for whatever reason - perhaps he doesn't really like you)? Then you're left embarrassed, because you've committed yourself to a precise action and your hand is stuck out there for everyone to see that you've been rebuffed.

However, it is possible to handle this in such a way that you avoid this embarrassment. When you start the process of shaking hands, start by being much more ambiguous. Instead of sticking your hand right out and making it clear to all that you want to shake hands, you move it out just a little bit. Then you observe whether his hand is moving out as well. If his hand is moving, then you can move your hand out a bit more, and so on until both hands meet in the middle. If his hand doesn't look like moving at the early stage of the handshake, then no problem - your hand position at that stage is ambiguous, so it could be interpreted as if you want to shake hands, lift your hand to wipe your forehead, scratch your face, hail a cab or do something else - and you can go ahead and change your intended handshake into any of those gestures without losing face.

The example I've given here illustrates the key point about taking up an ambiguous position: it gives you options. And in life, options are a good thing. The other great thing about ambiguity is that in the game of life, it allows you to maintain an asymmetry of information. Simply put, this means that you know something that the other person doesn't know - and given that knowledge is power, this enables you to stay one step ahead.

So how else might maintaining such ambiguity be put to use? Well, take for example the game of romance. Now a person like me with my love for precision would simply walk up to a girl that I fancy and set out my stall completely. I'd declare that I liked her, I really liked such-and-such about her, I'd like to start a relationship with her and who knows where this might lead. But given that I'm 5' 2", pot-bellied and with a head that looks like the aftermath of a session of frenzied panel beating, I'd be lucky to come away with just a slap.

But most people don't do this - they typically go down the ambiguous route. They start by 'moving their hand out a little' and merely trying to get friendly by striking up a conversation (or whatever it is people in the game of romance use as their opening gambit). Now being friendly is ambiguous - it could be that the man is just trying to be social. It could be that he's trying to get into the girl's pants. Or it could be that he has seen his true soulmate and is laying the foundation for an everlasting relationship. But wisely, he chooses to keep his cards close to his chest so that he can respond appropriately depending on whether or how the girl 'moves out her own hand'.

Another example of maintaining ambiguity could be where two groups of opposing interests are trying to negotiate a compromise. This is very tricky, because usually emotions are running very high on both sides and there's very much a 'no surrender' mentality, especially because the group that surrenders loses face. Obviously, the ultimate final agreement will involve a compromise that both sides will be able to claim as a 'victory'. However, the problem is how to get from the 'hardline' starting positions of the sides to this final agreement.

The trick for the mediator in such negotiations is to dig up sufficient ambiguity in the opening positions of both sides so that he can make it possible for them to move their positions. For example, if we're dealing with a worker-versus-management negotiation over pay, the workers might say that they won't work for less than N25,000 a month, and the management might say that they won't pay more than N20,000 a month. A skilled negotiator will note that both positions carry a certain amount of ambiguity - they say nothing about other conditions of service, like flexibility or benefits.

So the negotiator might propose to the workers' representatives that they accept the N20,000 and free transport, arguing that although they said they wouldn't work for less than N20,000, they didn't say anything about not working for N20,000 and free transport. Besides, the deal is one that they can take back to their group without it looking like they have lost out. And for the management, they won't look like they've given in either, since they've stuck to their original N20,000 pay limit.

So what does this mean? That we should all be ambiguous and keep our cards close to our chests all the time? Not at all. Maintaining an ambiguous positions is best done at the beginning of a relationship, where you aren't sure of the other person's motives - but once you see how the other person is responding, there is progressively less need to be ambiguous. Going back to the handshake example, you raise your hand just a little bit, maintaining an ambiguous position until you see the person raise their hand in response. Once you see that happen, you can feel more confident about raising your hand towards his for a handshake.

In fact, maintaining ambiguity unnecessarily can actually harm rather than strengthen relationships. It tells the other person that you don't trust them, that you have the need to keep some information close to your chest even when they have demonstrated a willingness to trust you by making their actions less ambiguous. And once they see this, they revert to ambiguous status or break off the relationship altogether.

And that isn't the only scenario where maintaining ambiguity is a bad idea. There might be circumstances where you know something, and not telling someone else what you know could cause harm to come to another person. In that situation, unless there is an overpowering reason to do otherwise, you should make this information available.

So if you've read up to this point, you're probably thinking of areas where the application of ambiguity might be a good idea. Well, before you do that, I should point out that the points in this whole essay might or might not be valid. Perhaps I duly researched them all and backed them up with experiments in the field. Or perhaps they were the unsubstantiated products of a hyperactive imagination. Either way, I prefer to leave the whole matter...

... precisely ambiguous.

Re: The Joys of Ambiguity
Ayo Adene posted on 05-09-2007, 06:33:00 AM
....haa! you're my man. i thot i was the only one. we also call it by other names such as 'diplomacy'. and the less diplomatic call it double-speak. and there's no better country to exercise it than Nigeria.
Re: The Joys of Ambiguity
Amy posted on 05-09-2007, 10:05:21 AM
Life itself is defined by ambiguities, so to navigate the onerous terrain of relationship, work or family life, one needs a good dose of practical wisdom to be able to strike that delicate balance between precision when necessary and measured ambiguity when needed. The trick as always is to maintain a sense of balance between the two options and not get too carried away in either direction to the point of attracting symptoms of stress and emptiness into one’s life.

The problem is that some people as a direct consequence of unpleasant experiences in their past, become excessively suspicious and feel the need to be unnecessarily ambiguous at every turn in their lives. I have come across individuals whose existence is hinged on fear and as always, fear brings mental torment. By adopting a rather exasperating and stressful lifestyle defined by the need to be compulsively ambiguous, such people miss out on the basic joys of life such as being able to relax, both mentally and physically, trust other human being freely when that’s reasonable cause to do so and enjoy the sheer bliss of totally committing to a soul mate unreservedly in a lasting love relationship.

With the frenzied schedule many people have in today’s world, nothing matters as much as maintaining a sense of equilibrium on a daily basis and I think being excessively precise or ambiguous could easily knock one out of balance and seriously hamper one’s overall sense of well being. The key for me is practical wisdom to know where to draw the line and remain at peace with ourselves and in harmony with the rest of the universe.

Nice write-up.

Later o.
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