The other day a young lady left me briefly speechless during my evening commute. It wasn’t because of her style and manner of dress, although it was quite theatrical. It wasn’t because of her youth and beauty, although she had both in abundance. It was not even her speech or mannerism, though I found them to be quite foreign and even a little jarring to my old ears. No, she momentarily left me at a complete loss for words because of what she said. All she had to do was look at me with the intense and challenging gaze of actual curiosity and ask, “What does that word mean?”

“Which one,” I managed to cough out while caught completely unaware. “Mundane?”

“Yeah, that one,” she asked in a manner completely devoid of challenge but with all the danger of an actual curious mind. “You just used it. What does it mean? I’d like to know.”

That’s when my brain shut down and I couldn’t for the life of me remember. I grant you it’s not a word I use every day. But seeing as I had used it once already, I daresay I use it more than most. At the time my brain silence indicated to me either I had just used a word I didn’t truly understand or I was experiencing the first signs of advancing middle age. Fortunately it turned out to be a third option which was a plain and simple brain hiccup caused by someone startling me out of complacency. To answer her I tossed off some mediocre answer in relative haste and went about my way. I then encountered what the French call “l’espirit de l’esaclier” which means suddenly thinking of what you should have said to someone long after it is the correct or witty time to actually say it. For some of us this happens a lot, which is why we start writing. Of course that has nothing to do with our subject now.

What is pertinent to our discussion is the fact I had to stop and think about it, and by it I mean the word I had just used. I had tossed a word out without even thinking about it. My careless usage was based on the assumption I was in full possession of the meaning and proper (as well as vulgar) usage of the thing. All it took was one curious mind with a single question at an unexpected time to pop that bubble. I finally understood what it must feel like to face a sea of quality people who will now review your brilliant plans and designs. And do you know what I learned? We are a rather annoying, yet necessary lot. We’re necessary not because we find problems and help make things better, but because we should be curious about other things. We’re the ones who question, which should include the very terms we all use on a regular basis. In short we need to keep asking if the words we all use mean what we think they mean, or if we’ve erected a large thought bubble around a term we’re either none too sure of or about which we cannot seem to quite get agreement.

That’s why I’m challenging you to implement a five second rule at your company in the spirit of that young and refreshingly uninhibited and curious woman from a while ago. Make it into a game and see if you can have fun with it. The rules are refreshingly simple. If someone in a meeting or email or document comes across a word or acronym or term they either don’t understand or suspect might be misused, they get to call a five second rule. The original user of said thing then has five seconds to define it. If they can’t, it goes into the glossary bucket to be defined later. Sometimes it makes it even more fun if there is a carrot/stick aspect where someone has to put a quarter into the challenge jar. It’s up to you about how far you want to take the game, however. The point of this exercise is not to be disruptive by breaking up meetings into a long series of “five second rule” calls. The point is to bubble to the surface terms we may all be using on a daily basis about which there is little to no understanding or agreement.

We’re engineers, analysts, administrators, and possibly failed rock musicians (long story) with diverse backgrounds, education, training, and hobbies. When I use the phrase “deconstruct” my friends who studied writing and literature think of a completely different concept than my friends who are visual artists. We all process language through our own filters so no one will have exactly the same reaction to a word, even one as simple as “dog.” And if we have subtly different views of “dog,” imagine the problems with assuming agreement on a phrase like “cloud computing.”

So rather than assuming we all know what someone means or challenging them by declaring them wrong, doesn’t it sound much more effective to ask them what they mean when they use it? Ask from a place of actual curiosity. Call a five second rule and see if there’s an opportunity for you all to learn.

About the Author

Curtis Stuehrenberg (@cowboytesting) has been enthusiastically pursuing a career where he gets to break things for over a decade. He is a writer, speaker, educator, and general lover of anything that doesn’t feel like working yet someone will pay him to do. He’s the author of a popular blog on software testing and general IT subjects ( and is a moderator for two very active LinkedIn groups. He recently participated as a contributing author to the book How to Reduce the Cost of Testing edited by Matt Heusser and published by CRC Publishing that will be released this Fall … if you need any ideas for good Holiday gifts.