This Is Ungood

by Don Friedman on October 18, 2017


From a few years ago, some rotting wood beams and a failing brick pier.

In 1989, I performed a long and difficult site visit to check on a structure I won’t name (confidentiality is still in place, even after all these years) that had to be reviewed once per year. The fellow who had been teaching me site work had performed the inspection every year prior to that and gave me his old reports to review before I went. The inspection required the use of a scissors lift some forty feet in the air. One of the old reports described, in the driest possible language, a problem that developed with the lift that had caused it to buck sideways several feet in an unpredictable manner. The sentence I remember word for word is “I then asked the operator to lower the platform until such time as the lift could be repaired.”

My point is that engineering reports are deliberately written in completely dispassionate language. People expect it. It helps reinforce the profession’s image. It’s easier to write for people who are often badly trained in writing. But most importantly, it’s often more convincing. In terms of professional dynamics (or professional psychology), someone whose opinion changes with different circumstances is more convincing than someone whose opinion is always the same: an engineer who says everything he sees is terrible and needs to be fixed seems no more credible than one who says everything is good; both seem less credible than one who says some things are good and some are bad. Similarly, someone who uses calm language is seen as calm and therefore more convincing. If the old inspection report had included “Then I yelled ‘Are you trying to kill me? GET ME DOWN!'” it would not have been more convincing even though that reaction is a natural one.

When I took the picture above, I was thinking that I wanted to minimize my time in that building. And I did. But my report was written in dispassionate language, describing cracks in the pier and percentage of wood loss due to rot. And, eventually, the pier and floor beams were both repaired.

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