Unpack That For Me

“Can you unpack that a little for me?”

I gave a blank stare the first time I heard the term. It brought up a mental picture of suitcases and dirty laundry. But this term has a non-literal meaning that has crept into regular language and appears on fora, in books and even in the transcripts of UK parliamentary committees. It seems that it’s not, strictly speaking, new, as it’s been used in computing and in academic discourse for a long time. But it’s jumped the fence into every day conversation.

When I heard the question I understood from the context I understood that I needed to explain in more detail, but I may have been naive.  According to Andrew Friedman, a student at Brown;

Unpacking, as defined by my peers, basically means deconstructing a loaded statement into its constituent parts, putting the statement in context so that it may be better understood.

Yikes, so it’s something you’re asked when you’ve said something controversial or loaded. He gives a couple of examples, in one case he learnt something and changed his view, in the other he was irritated by the question.

You might have guessed I’m not a fan of this term, I still get the suitcase image in my head and have to translate it. I’d prefer any of these alternative expressions;

  • Could you explain that?
  • Help me understand what you mean…
  • Give me a little more background to your decision
  • What do you mean by that?
  • Could you give an example?
  • Huh?

Image: Suitcases  |  Natasha Mileshina  |  CC BY-NC 2.0

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