A mark of advanced fluency in anything is the ability to recognize a style in someone else. A person fluent in a language can often detect even the slightest hint of a dialect in someone else. A person fluent in ways of managing can walk into a company and quickly detect the style of management being used there. A person fluent in digital media can look at something as simple as a 140-character tweet and tease a great deal of meaning out of it, even being able to tell whether the person might be lying, whether they are new to the medium, or many other things. The development of this level of fluency takes a lot of time participating in and observing things.
Here’s an analogous example of fluency and the ability to detect style: On Friday night my wife suggested that we attend the Indiana University women’s volleyball match against Miami University. Throughout the game a part of my brain began to notice that a player from Miami had a style that was different from the other players on the floor. Further, my brain was sensing that she was probably also a beach volleyball player, and that she was probably originally from California, and not Florida. I mentioned this to my wife a few times during the game.
So was i right? Before i tell you, let’s back up a bit. I have played volleyball since i was a kid, first in local Massachusetts indoor leagues, but then in college on a club team. After that, i transitioned heavily to playing beach volleyball for the next 10 years, playing in tournaments in New England, Chicago, Florida and California. While living California, i lived in Manhattan Beach, and trained pretty heavily for two years in a bid to join the AVP, which meant that i spent a lot of hours training with players. During that time, i was exposed to players from all over the world, who came to train and compete in California. To play well against them required a player to develop a knowledge of the tiniest styles of their play.
So as i watched the IU volleyball game on Friday, my brain was picking up little signals about the one player from the Miami team. Some of them were not describable in words. Some of them were. Her hitting form, for example, was much more vertical than the other players. She tended to hit at sharper angles cross-court than the other players (a style made famous on the beach and indoors by the great Karch Kiraly, who was also from Southern California, and style which is conspicuous in beach players, even when they play indoors). The way she contacted the ball with her hand put more spin and had more control than the other players (a style i noticed immediately when i first moved to California).
So was i right?? The following morning i woke up wondering. To check, i visited the Miami Athletics website, and looked for the players number, which I had mentally noted from the night before. Here is the player’s profile. Her home town? Manhattan Beach, California. Not only that, but she also clearly plays beach volleyball as well, since she represented the United States at the Under-19 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Poland.
So what can we learn from this?
For one thing, fluency can provide predictive insight. On Friday night, the ability to pick out Lane’s style was just a nice reminder of my past foray into beach volleyball, and an enrichment of my experience of the game. But if i were in a competition against her for the NCAA championship, knowing her style would have clued me in to what she might do next, and possibly provide a winning advantage. Similarly, a person who is fluent with digital media and its effects can not only appreciate “good” uses of it, but they can also make far better sense of the ways that the people around them are using digital media, enabling them to better anticipate and react to what might happen next in their business, their market or their culture.
Another thing we can learn from this is that it takes time to develop a level of fluency. Had i been a casual back yard volleyball player, it would have been impossible for me to see the things i did in the game. The ability was a direct result of the hours i have spent on and around volleyball courts training, playing, watching others, and developing my critical sense of what goes on there.
One final thing we can learn from this is that we need to listen to the expert intuition of people who are fluent, in addition to more “scientific” data. While it is extremely important for a coach and players to look at an opponent’s statistical tendencies, most of the insights i had during the game would not come from game statistics or any sort of predictive analytics that could be performed. The same goes for situations where a person.