ELI5 — Explain Like I’m 5

Until last week I did not know the meaning of the acronym ELI5 — “explain like I’m five.” I’m convinced that this request sets the hurdles very high for me but the goal is worth it. Five-year-olds are actually past the time when their main interaction with adult is “why?!”. If they do not understand an adult at that age they may just blink and walk away, or wrinkle their nose.

eli5I shall therefore compose several pieces in the ELI5 mode. Hopefully adult readers won’t walk away. Please score me 1-10 — the higher the score, the less I have succeeded in stating my case. Give me a 1 if I have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, and 10 if I have failed miserably, or anything in between.

What does *explain* itself mean? Why is “why” asked by children or adults? What is expected of me, who is asked that question? Should pause,estimate the age of the questioner and then proceed. My reply should be adjusted to my guess of the age of my interlocutors.

A five-year-old does not ask only to annoy because he/she knows it teases! The question is not asked to gain an adult’s attention or to get him/her away from whatever they are currently doing, like reading a magazine or watching a TV program which is likely to be boring to smart kids. I think it is asked for several reasons. Thus, the kid may not yet be aware that one need to be very specific in how to formulate a question when asking adults, that it is different from asking other kids the same question. Kids do what adults also do: they ask questions in contexts and therefore assume that the person addressed can fill in all the blanks omitted.

Take the case of dropping a glass of water. The glass shatters. WHY? EXPLAIN! The question is probably not what an adult would ask: what was it about the glass or the floor which shattered the glass. Was the glass empty, half full, full? Was the floor carpeted? Wood? Cement? Were my hands wet, greasy? Was I inebriated, or do I suffer from palsy? None of this information would be helpful to the child! Say “the glass was wet and slippery” — it may be sufficient. Now wait for the next “why”! It will however be a different question — the continuation of a social encounter.

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