Validating experiences

I thought I knew the drill the other week when, for the first time in several years, I was back on Berlin's street railway, the S-Bahn. I walked onto the platform and dropped my euros into the slot of the machine to buy my ticket. When the train came, I jumped on and rode away.

And then at the very next stop I jumped out, several stops short of my actual destination. But I spotted what I needed on the platform of that next station, took action, got on the next train, and traveled the rest of the way.

What I was seeking on that second platform was validation.

Literally. German public transport systems generally run on what we might call "the honor system plus." There are no barriers or turnstiles, but one is always expected to have a ticket on one's person.

There was one step I'd left out, though. My ticket needed to be time-stamped, after which it would be good for two hours.

Oddly, the German term for this stamping is Entwertung, literally "invalidation," taking the value away from. The English instructions on the machines, however, refer to the stamp by a word that means the opposite: as "validation."

Ah, yes. In the English-speaking world, we're deep into "validation." Have you noticed? It's one of those semitechnical, semipsychobabble words that are creeping into ordinary conversation. Remember how "sound bite" made the transition from broadcasting shoptalk to part of our general political discourse?

As a friend and I were talking the other night about the role of networking in finding jobs, she mentioned how a nurse practitioner she'd met had "validated the salary data" she had found on a popular salary-data website.

Salary validation can work the other way, too – there are companies a mortgage lender can turn to for a reality check on their loan applicants, for instance.

Wikipedia's disambiguation page on "validation" slices up the terrain six ways, including a helpful note on the distinction between "validation" ("ensuring 'you built the right product' ") and "verification" ("ensuring 'you built the product right' ").

When we talk about a shift in the economy from manufacturing to service to information, this is what it looks like – legions of us employed in confirming that what we think we know is so.

"Validation" is a whole subindustry in the pharmaceutical field, for instance. And then there's compliance and calibration, both running mates of "validation."

At a more amateur level, many of us trying to maintain our own computers have run across "Genuine Windows validation."

And then there's validation in the psychological sense: "He validated my feeling that George acted like an idiot in this afternoon's budget meeting."

"Validation" in this psychological sense is tied up with "I'm OK, You're OK," the pop psychology bestseller that everyone seemed to be reading back in the 1970s.

More recently, I've noted the rise of what I call "the skeptical OK." Have you noticed how people have started to say "OK" instead of the (hitherto) more usual "yeah" or "unh-hunh" of affirmation when someone is relating an experience or giving an explanation?

It's not a genuinely affirmative "OK," but more of a cocked-eyebrow, keeping-my-distance, "Yeah, I'm listening, but so far what you're saying sounds rather strange."

This "OK" seems to suggest that the speaker feels in a position to grant permission to each step of the other party's narrative – even when the narrative is in the past tense.

What's up with that, anyway? It may be OK. But when I hear it, I don't feel validated.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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