Using Everyday Words in Surveys

One of the platitudes maxims I often repeat when I give advice or presentations on survey design goes something like this:

“If you think there are different ways of interpreting a question, chances are that someone will…”

Around the time that I repeat this I also do some carrying on about how even what seem to be the most everyday of words or terms can be interpreted in many different ways.  This morning I came across another example that can be added to my harangue on this topic.  It is from 2008 but it is new to me:

“When preparing our GSS survey questions on social and political polarization, one of our questions was, ‘How many people do you know who have a second home?’ This was supposed to help us measure social stratification by wealth–we figured people might know if their friends had a second home, even if they didn’t know the values of their friends’ assets. But we had a problem–a lot of the positive responses seemed to be coming from people who knew immigrants who had a home back in their original countries. Interesting, but not what we were trying to measure.”

–Andrew Gelman, source:

I should also note that in the comments on this post Paul M. Banas mentioned “being more direct” and using the phrase “vacation home” instead.  This sounds like good advice to me.