Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peat’s Sake: The Challenge of Nomenclature

For Peats Sake LogoBy Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

The spoken language is one of the most amazing developments of human civilization. As our knowledge of the world around us continues to expand, the level of complexity and the specificity of what we know and try to convey has evolved from what began as simple tonal sounds into a large and carefully nuanced volume of vocabulary just within the blog121715English language alone. So one would think that when we speak today, that our refined vocabulary would allow us to be easily understood by our peers. However, as most of us know, that’s not necessarily the case. Language, like beauty, is often defined in the eye – or rather the ear – of the beholder. Each one of us is unique in our perceptions of the world around us as we are all molded by our personal experiences; therefore, our understanding of words can also be colored by different shades of gray.

For example, the Association of State Wetland Managers has been working with members of an interagency wetlands working group on a symposium for the Society of Wetland Scientists 2016 Annual Meeting on the topic of silviculture and coastal wetlands. The reason for the symposium effort was to discuss why, according to the report, Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Coastal Watersheds of the Conterminous United States: 2004 – 2009, 20%-30% of the acreage of forested wetlands associated with silviculture appear to be changing to non-wetland (dry land). One of our first actions in developing our agenda was to reach out to members of the silviculture community in an effort to bring everyone to the table. We knew going in to this that it is a highly sensitive topic and that we would encounter very different perspectives concerning what is actually happening on the ground. blog1121715What we found out immediately, was that nomenclature also played a big role in communicating those varying perspectives accurately.

For example, the word “upland” means something different to a wetland scientist than it does to a forester. Even the phrase “wetland loss” can be variously interpreted and used with different implications depending, for example, on the description of the wetlands included and the temporal implications (i.e., temporary or permanent losses). So when we speak, particularly outside of our narrow professional circles, we are finding that we have to carefully define the words we choose to use. This makes communication very time consuming and sometimes cumbersome. But often it is time well spent – especially when the stakes are high. This is why our first presentation of our symposium agenda planned for the spring of 2016 is on the topic of nomenclature.

I often find myself in a similar situation around the holidays. Some folks say “Happy Holidays.” Some say “Merry Christmas.”  Some say “Happy snowflake121715Hanukkah.” Some say “Happy Solstice.” And some say “Happy Kwanza.” And so on. I don’t think any of us really expect that every individual we share our seasonal holiday greeting with shares in our same belief system, but we say it anyway as a way of communicating the spirit of the season. Unfortunately, sometimes whichever phrase we use, we seem to inadvertently offend someone who feels we did not greet them with the proper expression. In the end, whether its academic conversation, professional communication or seasonal greetings, we all need to approach situations like these with open minds and a willingness to do the hard work to understand other people’s perspectives and intentions.  So for Peat’s Sake, let’s make the extra effort to tackle our communication and listening skills, because I really don’t want to have to resolve to using interpretive dance. Although that might just break the ice through shared laughter – the easiest form of communication there is!

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