The Most Important Lesson Of The “Yanny” or “Laurel” Debate

The last two days all the internet can talk about is the “yanny” or “laurel” debate, the audio equivalent of 2015’s “The Dress”. (Remember the debate about whether it was black and blue or white and gold?) Friendships and families stand divided over whether an audio clip says one versus the other. Science says what you hear depends on what frequencies you are capable of hearing—people who can hear higher frequencies hear “yanny,” people who cannot hear “laurel”—and several outlets, like the New York Times, have manipulated the frequencies of the clip to help you hear both.

To my surprise, I hear “yanny.” I expected to hear “laurel” because I have a track record of listening to music really loudly at FlyWheel, when I use my headphones, and when I’m in the car. From time to time, I hear the telltale high-pitched “eeeeeeeeeh” indicative of hearing loss so I did not count on having much high-frequency hearing left. I consider my place on the “yanny” side of the debate to be a personal win. Ironically, the original recording—the one circling the web was made by a student who recorded the clip from his computer speakers so it varies slightly—comes from the vocabulary.com page for “laurel”. (P.S. When I listen to the original recording, it is much easier to hear both.)

Regardless of whether you hear “yanny” or “laurel,” there is an important lesson we can learn from this debate about how we communicate with others. Think about it. We’re all listening to the same audio clip and hearing two very different things. (Heck! During “The Dress” debate, we were looking at the same dress and seeing two very different things.) It brings to light the high variability between people’s interpretations of the same input and how easily it is for us to miscommunicate.

There are a billion factors that affect how we interpret our surroundings beyond what frequencies we can hear (or, what pixels we can see) like where we grew up, what we studied in school (if we studied in school), what religion we practice, and past experiences. The way we communicate, the words we choose have to account for or overcome each of these to get us on the same page. That is why I am so fascinated by psychology in my pursuit as a communicator and why I read books like “The Rhetoric of Rhetoric” and “How To Win Friends And Influence People.” They help me understand what variables exist and how they change the way I need to communicate with different audiences to improve understanding. It has helped me build better relationships with others, achieve better outcomes, and reduce my conflicts with others…except in this case, where the answer is unequivocally “yanny.” Fight me.

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