You know them, whether you use them yourself or have seen others use them: the little vertical hooking gesture made with the first and second fingers of both hands when using a word or phrase. I remember when I joined one team and asked about coding standards, a team member told me, “Oh, sure, we have ‘standards,’ but they’re really just guidelines; we don’t have to follow them,” using air quotes when he said the word standards.
Recently I ran into a colleague and he mentioned his company’s “cleanroom,” enclosed in air quotes. I asked him what the air quotes were about and he said, “Oh, we wear Tyvek and all that, but we don’t actually meet any clean air standards, so we call it a cleanroom but it’s not, really.” Sometimes air quotes are used derisively, such as when the speaker mentions the “help desk” or “quality assurance.”
I see air quotes as a sort of visual disclaimer, a wink-wink, a way for the speaker to say, “Someone else calls it that, but I haven’t bought in,” or the expression of a personal opinion that might not be shared by others. This is another “visual smell” that could indicate lack of agreement or norming amongst the team.
While we may want to minimize documentation and the use of Word, we can mentally use some of Word’s features to sniff out some whiffs of smells.—just the way George could sniff out a drop of vermouth in those “dry dry” martinis.