Influence vs. Impact: the scooter metaphor

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2008/03/08 12:05 -05:00, original URI:

Please read the disclaimer; content of Michael Kaplan's blog not approved by Microsoft!

It is that time of year -- you know, when HR is in the air (so to speak).

It is the midyear, and everyone scrambles to fill in the forms and such, hoping it will keep the nag mails from coming but knowing somehow that they ill keep coming anyway, as all those who have finished already can readily attest!

Now perhaps it is because I have a blog that speaks so candidly about just about anything (too many things, according to some!) and most especially language issues, but I seem to attract a slightly greater than expected number of questions from non-native English speakers in the group about some of the language surrounding reviews....

Like the other day, when a colleague was genuinely confused about what actual difference was being conveyed between the words influence and impact.

I gave him some of the typical examples that they often give, but he had read those and still seemed a little unconvinced.

    "Well," I suggested, "it's like my scooter."

    "Your scooter?" he asked, incredulously.

    "Yeah, like my scooter. Let me explain...."

    "I would like that," he said, clearly quite curious about what my scooter could have to do with the definition of two words that would be relevant.

    "Well," I explain, "as I am scooting down the hallway, people will move out of the way without me saying a word, without the scooter ever touching them. That is because the scooter has influence over people. The scooter has influence over their behavior, in a way that people generally don't tend to in ordinary situations."

    "And the impact?" he asked tentatively, almost afraid of the obvious answer and hoping that it will be something different.

    "Ah, that one should be obvious -- if the scooter hits someone, there will be some serious impact. Like when KC used to ask us in triage over suggested development solutions What's the impact to test? but more directly -- the impact would be a scooter-shaped dent in a tester, or in the general case, in whoever the scooter hit," I explained wryly.

    He shakes his head. "So you are saying that the influence is about people understanding the consequences of the impact? That doesn't seem right."

    "No, it isn't that simple. After all, who knows what is behind the influence, exactly? Maybe it is the fear of being hit, maybe they are being polite, maybe it is pity, maybe it is feeling bad about being in my way. The reason doesn't matter, in the end. It is an overlapping, sometimes but not always causative force."

    He nod his head slowly. "I think I understand what you mean."

    "And there is another aspect as well," I continue, clearly on a roll. "If the scooter crashes into a wall, the impact is self evident after the crash. But in this case there was no influence whatsoever. It isn't like wall could get out of the way, or flinch, or even cry out a warning. So it is not only possible to have influence without impact; it is quite possible to see impact without influence!"

When I relayed this story later to Cathy, she admitted that her first thought was about the incident that inspired the Note to self: don't run over the General Manager blog -- even if people don't manage to get completely out of the way, they can still feel the influence and the desire to avoid the impact. :-)


This post brought to you by(U+ff2a, a.k.a. FULLWIDTH CAPITAL LETTER J)

silverhalide on 11 Mar 2008 2:03 PM:

This reminds me of the line about the distinction between being "committed" to a project or just being "involved":

Consider a breakfast of bacon & eggs.  The chicken was involved.  The pig, committed.



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referenced by

2008/11/24 UCS-2 to UTF-16, Part 6: An exercise left for whoever needs some exercise

2008/11/08 'It's Not Easy' saying WTF to an 'Ant in Alaska'

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