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Sequentiality Killed the Cat


Language has always bugged me a little. And by that I don’t mean a certain dead or spoken one, but human language as such. The biggest issue I have with language is its inherent  sequentiality. Actually, I think this “bug” makes language unsuitable for communicating what and how we think.

“Can a timeless moment of consciousness ever be adequately conveyed in a medium that depends on time, i. e. language? This is the mystic’s and the lyric poet’s problem.”

Charles Simic


I see something you don’t see (yet)

Imagine yourself visiting your aunt in a hospital. Don’t worry, nothing serious, just a removed appendix and she’ll be fine. Now close your eyes, enter her sick room in your mind and think about it. Just think. Don’t try to communicate what you are seeing or feeling. Just focus on the thinking. And now open your eyes. What did you see? Can you describe it exactly the way you thought it? And when you start your description with - let’s assume - the flowers in a vase near to the bed, was it really the first thing you thought of? Wasn’t it the bed or the lights? Didn’t you have that special hospital smell in your nose before you even saw the bed? Was it all together? Did you see and smell everything at the same time? So why are you describing the flowers first? That is not fair to the bed or the smell or all the other things you saw, felt or thought of at the same time or at least in an order you can’t really remember. And let me tell you that throwing a few “and”s to your description will not make it any less sequential and it will still not be fair to the bed and the smell, as I will still hear about the flowers first and thus draw my own picture of what you saw with the flowers as the first component in there.

Human language is sequential. Our thinking isn’t. Thus, over hundreds of thousands of years, human beings developed various workarounds to overcome this dilemma, the most prominent of which is poetry. But those are just workarounds and not many of us seem be able to use them properly.


Let’s email about it

A few weeks back I designed and experimented with a simple group exercise that shows how sequentiality in language and communication paired with stress situations similar to those we face in our professional lives can lead to deep misunderstandings, miscommunication and even value-shifting.

Context: A local group of social activists asked me to moderate a “vision and mission finding” workshop for them. The group had been working together for a few months and had at least one incident where conflicts arose after an internal email discussion on planned actions. After working through the emails, my assumption was that those conflicts were mainly due to the selected communication medium and the way the participants used it rather than to the actual content of the discussion. The exercise was conducted after about two hours of work on the values of the participating individuals. So the participants had some insights about their peers and the values most important for them in life and work.

Idea: The participants had to state input that is essential for them and then have the group conduct a round of strictly sequential communication about it while preventing any kind of non-verbal communication and restricting the communication time to create some “real life” pressure. In other words, simulate virtual email discussions in the real physical world.


  • After having learned about the most important values of the other participants through other exercises, I asked every participant to think of the five values he/she considers the most important for their work as a group, write them on five post-it notes and fix them to a sheet so they can hand them around to the others. This had a time limit, but not a very stressful one.

  • Once all values are written, I disclosed to the participants that they should now hand over their sheets to their neighbours (clockwise) who will have less than 20 seconds to “remove” the one value they consider the least important by crossing them out on the post-it and writing their initials beneath it before handing it over to the next who should do the same until there is only one value left on every sheet. The resulting values shall be considered as the shared group values.

  • The strictly sequential flow of communication in the exercise and the time pressure put on them to filter core values in seconds were enough to prevent verbal and non-verbal communication between the participants. No external regulation or control was even needed.


Dude, where is my value?

The results were surprising to all participants. None of them was actually satisfied with the one value that survived from his set as a core group value. After almost an hour of discussions, questions, wonderings and analysis, the following three patterns for “wrong choices” were crystallized by the group:

  • The last Choice: participants at the end of the cycle found themselves faced with deciding upon the fate of values by just choosing between the last two without having enough context information or any influence on the filtering process so far. The often stated that they would actually have preferred one of the other “crossed” values on the sheet.

  • Lost in Interpretation: many values were deleted due to misinterpretation of what they should represent for the group and the lack of possibility to actually conduct any clarification. It was not clear if “efficiency” for example was related to the group getting stuff done or rather to the impact its actions were causing. One value even survived the filtering merely because of misinterpretation.

  • Death by Duplication:  the values that was most shared by the participants were actually the most likely to be removed from the list. Participants have deleted values they saw for the second or third time, because they assumed that the first one(s) had survived and thus it would hurt the group to have duplicated values at the end. Especially in this one, sequentiality of communication was a killer, as the most shared values were rather seen as a burden than as a bless.

The end of email discussion groups

Group emails are certainly good for notifications and announcement and might be there for fulfil this purpose for a long time. But when it comes to discussions, especially value and objective related ones, it usually fails to be the right medium.

Many of us have been involved in long emails threads with endless replies from various recipients. And many of us probably caught themselves a few times contributing to such threads without necessarily reading (let alone reflecting upon) all posts and replies, but rather reacting on a trigger in the few recent ones. This behaviour that chooses to ignore context, background and meta-level elements in favour of pseudo-fast reaction and local optimization is not only driven by stress or time restriction, but has its source in the nature of text-based group communication. The extreme sequentiality of email (being asynchronous and non-real-time) and the lack of meta-level elements in its textual medium will generally draw group communication towards losing context and optimizing for opportune localities (e. g. recent provocations) and will create barriers on the way back to the core (time-consumption, interpretability, focus-shiftings etc).

However, group communication on complex concepts (especially ones with personal relevance) is more about mediating pictures, emotions, context, background etc. rather than merely sequentially stating facts and figures. Thus, a text-based medium is not the right one to use and a slow, sequential, text-based one like email is definitely the wrong one.


“When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images.”
Niels Bohr

Do you read me?

Let’s go back to the hospital scene. How would you describe that scene in writing and not lose value to sequentiality and interpretation? Well, you could try poetry. But even if you succeed and no matter how good you will succeed in that, eventually some disputing about what you might have meant will still be there and if you are really good, a few literary critics will have a living of it. However, this is still not what you were actually aiming for, is it?

The solution to this is not new. It is what people have been doing since they have invented language and discovered it’s flaws: talking. Real-time face-to-face communication reduces the effects of sequentiality not only by adding a meta-communication level (non-verbal signals, context etc.) but also by reducing the time span between communication items and increasing the rate of feedback loops. Of course this is only an approximation and not a perfect solution, as people will still have to communicate through human language when it comes to complex topics. But until someone comes up with a bright idea on how to create a communication mean which structure and essence is not based on sequentiality, our best workaround - especially in group communication - will still be this ancient thing called “talking”.