I am struggling to decide how to start this column. If I am not careful, I could end up venturing into the periphery of politics, which is one of the subjects I have diligently, and I think successfully, avoided so far. I need to be cognisant of how the article, or at least this introduction, will be interpreted and so I need to choose my words carefully. Here goes. I cannot avoid the fact that the recent, widely reported furore about the use of particular words and their impact on the audience who hear them has been a key stimulus for this article. On its own, this would not be sufficient, but it meshed with a number of other sources of ideas I had come across over time. So, I want to discuss language and its importance and impact.

Every month I use language and words to convey a message with the objective of stimulating discussion and having an impact beyond just being a good read. Whether I achieve this objective, I will leave you to judge. Communication is a topic I return to on a regular basis, being fundamental to all aspects of life. I have discussed this in many ways: presentations; the extensive vocabulary of words available but the limited number in common use; text speak; pictures and emojis; the importance of backing up words with actions; and the use of stories. In reviewing previous articles to ensure I avoid too much repetition, I came across the following paragraph from over ten years ago:
“The technology has advanced considerably, but despite the ease and speed of mobiles, PDAs, emails and instant messaging, the start and finish are always the interaction of mind and matter, which have been around for 130 thousand years. To get this right requires effort.”

This is at the crux of the recent furore referred to above and also has an effect on all parts of life: how does the mind respond to the visual or aural stimuli of words? In a letter to New Scientist, the correspondent highlights that it is impossible for us to think without language but goes on to state that much work is needed to understand how our language areas in the brain link to our intent areas. It is easy to see the results in a number of examples.

The first time I came to realise this connection was in a discussion about innovation and the challenge to identify new products or services. A company reviewed its target market and decided that, while it had always seen itself as a biscuit manufacturer, what it was selling was fast/convenience food. This change in viewpoint immediately opened up a lot more options for new products. There have been a number of examples of changing a negative connotation into a positive one by replacing words: a ‘problem’ saps enthusiasm, but if referred to as an ‘opportunity’ (which takes some effort) it becomes a positive challenge; ‘disabled’ replaced by ‘differently abled’ immediately changes the view from restrictions to possibilities; if you want to see the effect on teamwork of replacing ‘them’ with ‘we’, look up ex-United States Navy (USN) submarine commander David Marquet and read his book or watch his YouTube video. 

Language plays a key part in NDT. I have previously cited examples of confusion over terminology and highlighted that a perfunctory search identified approximately 20 NDT standards listing terminology. It is important that we all sing from the same hymn sheet, but I do think that there may be opportunities to modify our language to change perceptions within NDT and also within the communities that use NDT results. So, should we avoid writing inspection reports stating ‘no defects’ in favour of stating ‘no defects detected by this inspection procedure’? and replace ‘defect size = x mm’ with ‘defect size = x mm with uncertainties inherent in the technique’?
On a more general level, I would like you to consider ‘reliability’ and ‘human factors’. While ‘reliability’ aptly describes the subject, it has become seen as a sub-topic of NDT rather than an integral part of any inspection. Similarly, ‘human factors’ is a well-established discipline, but could we encourage more uptake of measures aimed at improving NDT application if it had a different term? We do not talk about human factors in sports. I look to you to identify other examples.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Wood or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438300; Email: ndtnews@bindt.org or email Bernard McGrath direct at bernard.mcgrath@woodplc.com

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