Cutting the Lemon

August 29, 2022
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There was a meme doing the rounds a while ago of a text sent by a woman to her partner. On her way home from work she’d sent him a message asking him to prepare dinner … “can you start cooking those sausages? <3” …. She got home to two cooked sausages. While we can all see the funny side, I started to wonder how many of us honestly would have made the same mistake!? To the woman she’d sent a heart at the end of her message, to the man she’d asked him to cook less than three sausages; two interpretations of the same message. Surely this was indicative of a larger problem which needed to be explored further – the issue of misunderstanding.

How many times have you heard the phrase ‘wrong end of the stick’ or ‘barking up the wrong tree’? How many meetings have you sat in, utterly baffled at how somebody has interpreted your instructions so badly? It’s easy to place the blame on the other person but if we consider that everybody’s interpretation of a concept is completely different, then it changes the way we communicate entirely.


As I started reading more widely on the subject, I came across a task that on it’s surface seemed too simple to work, but the more I asked people to do it, the more surprised I was at how effective it was. The premise is an easy one – close your eyes and imagine yourself cutting a lemon … straightforward,isn’t it? But when you start to delve deeper, the reason it’s so useful becomes evident.

When I cut my lemon I’m stood in a kitchen with a white marble countertop, the chopping board is black and I’m holding a sharp knife of around 20cm. It’s a perfectly bright yellow lemon and I cut it in half across the widest part; it falls in two, both sections with the flesh facing upwards. It’s natural daylight and there’s a large window looking out over a vast garden. While realising there would be some slight changes, I naively assumed that everybody’s imagining would be similar. How wrong was I!

The differences in the interpretation of the task were huge! To name but a few, the lemon was sliced length ways, some start at the top, some cut it in half, others into wedges or thin slices. The colour of the lemon varied from neon yellow to green with some people clearly describing the texture of the skin and the smell as they cut it – factors I hadn’t even considered! The knives were big, small, sharp, blunt, a whole host of different colours with vast variations in the handle choice and weights. Imagined locations stretched from a kitchen to a bar, lemon grove and everywhere in between. The chopping board was thick butchers block, thin plastic, concrete, round, square, some had no board and used the bare surface or a tree trunk. The list of differences was quite literally endless. Try it with some friends or family and see for yourself how staggeringly different each individual interpretation is.


What does this teach us? Well, quite simply that nothing is simple. Your interpretation of something is not mine, and you aren’t ‘barking up the wrong tree’ you’re barking up your tree. We often feel embarrassed to give clear, prescriptive directives and equally we feel embarrassed to ask for clarification on what should be straightforward instructions. But we need to. Assuming that somebody will understand something the way we do is risky because as the lemon task demonstrates, it’s highly unlikely two interpretations will actually be the same.

Changing the way we communicate takes time, but in the long run can reap huge rewards in productivity and time savings. Explaining clearly what expectations are and noticing any factors that could be open to misunderstanding allows everybody involved to be on the same page. For example,“can you have that ready for tomorrow” should be “can you have that ready for 11:30 tomorrow” … we can’t be frustrated that one interpretation of tomorrow is end of the day and another is lunchtime. We need to be conscious that clarity is in no way micromanaging. Quite the opposite. Listing the instructions or directions that are important to your understanding of how something should be done allows for those following them to be fully aware of expectations. They can function in the comfort of knowing they’re not going off course and that they’re not wasting their time with “the wrong end of the stick”.

Being clear is not being patronising, it’s essential. Making sure everybody involved understands every element of a task minimises opportunity for error and increases opportunity for satisfaction. Encourage people to ask questions, and ask them yourself. By engendering an environment that welcomes questioning you’re reducing the likelihood of misunderstanding … and with any luck next time you ask your partner to cook dinner, you’ll get home to more than two sausages!

At YOPLA we take the confusion out of building apps and work with you to develop custom software that is perfect for your business. Get in touch with us today to see what benefits an app can have for your company.


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