Hyperbole Into Nuance
I have previously written about the weirdness of hyperbolic language and I haven’t been entirely fair towards hyperbole: It has its uses.
Hyperbole is a good starting point if you want to use humour for good and don’t know how to start, for one. Taking a complex thing or situation and exaggerating one or two aspects is a comedic staple and the most important principle in caricatures.
But it’s also good to find more nuanced opinions. Recently I had a very instructive discussion with a friend who could not name or remember his emotions most of the time. (This is still mind-boggling to me, and apparently more common than I can imagine). We tried a few approaches that turned out to be completely unsuited because they assumed some prior knowledge or even familiarity with emotional processing. What helped, in the end, were exaggerations. “If you can pick only ‘overjoyed’ or ‘terrible’, what’s closer to how you’re feeling right now?” was not only useful in getting an answer – any answer – but also helped to triangulate the next line of questioning, for example “More like terrible, but only because of my family”.
The triangulation process is very useful, because it forces you to clarify – it’s easier to correct a marginal error (even if the margin is very large) than to come up with something out of thin air. It’s Newton’s method, applied to words/semantics/opinions/feelings/anything. Meta Newton. Interestingly enough, converging on a true (here meaning: useful) opinion starting from hyperbole even shares the common pitfalls of Newton’s method:
- Stationary points: Sometimes you just have genuinely no idea which direction to go, beyond a vague sense of “this is not right”, so you’ll get stuck before completing the first step. It feels like missing a step or trying to divide by zero. Try a different starting point.
- Non-convergence: Sometimes, multiple things are true and by trying to converge on one truth, you’ll block yourself from discovering other truths, or you’ll get confused trying to approximate two points in one go. Try to focus on a sense of direction, either by feeling or by being more precise in your terminology.
- Poor initial estimate: Sometimes you start out so wildly wrong that you have no chance of finding what you’re looking for, because you get stuck on tangents¹ on the way. You will never assume that this is what’s happening, and will instead try all other debugging techniques. Sorry.
- Impractically slow convergence: Depending on your experience with the problem space and how well you can approximate your target from your current position, converging on something useful can take a long time. If you don’t know the problem space very well, accepting a more approximate, not-quite-right answer is probably a good idea.
- Overshooting: If you start from a hyperbolic frame of reference, it’s tempting to stay there (because it’s fun), and overshoot the goal instead of converging on it. Wikipedia recommends “successive over-relaxation”, which is a good way to deal with it – please use a relaxation method that’s legal in your current location, though.
So there you have it: Hyperbole is
useful in certain places the absolute best, after all!
¹ Yes, Newton’s method does not get you stuck on tangents. C’mon, bear with me.