32

I had a coworker who would occasionally say something like, "I can't solve this problem. Would you play Wooden Indian for me?" (referring to the carved figures that used to stand outside cigar stores) His meaning was: I need to talk through this with a live person who will listen and ask appropriate questions, and I think I could see the solution myself at that point.

I often need this, too, as I process problems best aloud; but I don't want to run around asking coworkers to be "wooden Indians" as this seems racially insensitive. Is there another idiom for this role?

  • isn't that just having a conversation with somebody? – barlop Jan 17 '18 at 16:48
  • 1
    Side note, but tell your coworker to just get something to talk to. It's the process of talking through a process that helps, not having someone listen. – Nic Hartley Jan 18 '18 at 19:04
85

In software engineering, a person that agrees to listen for no purpose other than to allow a problem to be expressed verbally is commonly referred to as a "rubber duck" or "rubber ducky".

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubber_duck_debugging

  • 4
    This is still a metaphor and it's domain-specific, so I think this is the best answer. – Justin Lardinois Jan 16 '18 at 19:34
  • But in British English "Ducky" or "Duckie" can be a term of affection, so be careful who you use it with. – Dragonel Jan 17 '18 at 0:37
  • 9
    As a programmer, I commonly use the expression "Rubber duck" (as it's referred in the wikipedia link"), but I've never heard it used as "rubber ducky". Also, using "duck" would get rid of @Dragonel 's concern. – xDaizu Jan 17 '18 at 10:26
  • 3
    @JeffZeitlin - the question doesn't explicitly specify a domain, but as it was asked by "Sarah the Coder" for a phrase to be used at work, I'm going to guess the domain is appropriate. :) – Jules Jan 17 '18 at 14:09
  • 3
    @vynsane my colleagues and I regularly refer to each other as rubber ducks in this context, so I disagree that this can only be applied to an inanimate object. We are talking about usage, rather than a narrow definition found in a specific document. – Aaron D Jan 18 '18 at 15:22
76

I’ll often tell a colleague “Hey {name}, I need a sounding board” or “Hey, {name}, let me bounce this off you”.

Merriam-Webster (1c) defines sounding board as “a person or group on whom one tries out an idea or opinion as a means of evaluating it”, but the actual usage in this context is more accurately described by Urban Dictionary - “A sounding board is a good listener, and either confirms what they hear or offers an opinion when [what] they hear is "off key".”.

Bouncing an idea off ... has been the subject of a question here on ELU, and was answered well. Oxford simply defines it as “Share an idea with (someone) in order to refine it.”

Both usages should be considered informal/colloquial, just as are “wooden Indian”, “rubber duck”, and “nodding dog” mentioned in this question and its various answers.

A third phrase that I’ll occasionally use, in a semi-humorous vein, is semantically equivalent to either of the above: “Hey, {name}, I need a sanity check”. Strictly speaking, a request for a sanity check (see Wikipedia) is simply asking whether there is any obvious problem with the idea/code, but the actual usage tends to be closer to that of the other two phrases.

  • 1
    Good differentiation of format usages. I liked Sherlock's "Mrs Hudson's taken my skull." – Edwin Ashworth Jan 16 '18 at 15:42
  • 3
    This answer / phrase highlights the critical difference between "rubber ducking" and active listening. – brichins Jan 16 '18 at 20:08
  • 1
    Thanks - all 3 of those are useful to me! Although I may try to start popularizing the other phrase, "rubber duck," in my workplace just because I personally find it more colorful and interesting, which allows it to keep more specific connotations as well. – Sarah the Coder Jan 17 '18 at 20:43
  • 1
    I like "rubber duck" best, too - but beware the particularly humor-impaired or the offense kleptomaniacs; they'll take it as demeaning or insulting. – Jeff Zeitlin Jan 17 '18 at 20:47
4

Our office used to call this the "nodding dog syndrome" after the toy once found in a lot of British cars.

Amazon: Lovely Shaking Head Nodding Dog Car Interior Decoration Ornament Pattern Random

The advantage is that they do NOT ask questions that can derail your thoughts, but will always nod approvingly, encouraging you to keep talking.

While you might have to explain what you want to someone the first time you use this phrase it is clear you are asking them to perform a certain role not just engage in a standard discussion.

  • 1
    FWIW, the American name for such toy generically is 'bobble-head'. – Jeff Zeitlin Jan 17 '18 at 18:10
  • 2
    I always think of a bobble-head as having the head on a spring, while a "nodding dog" has a loose attachment at the top of the neck so the movement is more side-to-side and less forward-&-back. But that's probably just me ...... – Dragonel Jan 17 '18 at 22:49
2

You need someone to listen to you thinking aloud, which basically means that you do all the thinking and talking and the other is just creating an environment where thinking aloud can be done more comfortably.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.