Everyone knows what a hot dog is, right?

Are you sure?

Certainly there is an overall agreement as to what a hot dog is, but the overall doesn’t always match the specifics. For example, take the word “fraud”: the exact meaning can obviously have different meanings based on context, but even within the context of retail markets, “fraud” isn’t a single thing. Writing in a recent blog post, the author (some financial tech genius) pointed out that fraud is an umbrella term referring to a variety of different issues.

This is relevant in trying to combat fraud in retail environment: because the various types of fraud are related, fighting in one area can help in other areas. BUT … because they ARE different things, fighting in one area isn’t enough if you want to beat the problem as a whole.

The same idea applies to things like cancer: people talk about a “cure for cancer” like it is one thing, but in reality, we use the term “cancer” to describe any of dozens of related but different diseases. The details of what TYPE of cancer really gets down to one’s personal experience: a type you have, or a type your father died or, or what have you. Everyone knows that cancer is a bad thing that can kill you, and that’s enough for most conversations. But the picture in your head when someone says the word is likely to be quite different from the picture in someone else’s head.

Now let’s take that logic and apply it to hot dogs: when you tell someone you’re going to get a hot dog, the average person is going to picture a tube-shaped, smoky-flavored piece of meat in a fluffy white bun. But that’s about as far as the “general” description goes. From that point, you’re basing your interpretation on your own mental picture, which is in turn based on your personal experience.

In other words, you’ve got the same words and same meaning from a “forest” perspective; from a “tree” view, however, things can look quite different. There are nearly limitless ways to top a dog, but there are a handful of standard ways that certain groups consider “normal” … it’s what they automatically picture when you say “hot dog.”

As an example, let’s look at the humble chili dog. In certain parts of the country, smothering a dog in a meat-based chili is the default thinking of a what a hot dog is. In some areas, serving up a perfectly grilled dog with just mustard and onions would be expected; in other places, folks would look at you like you were handing them a green banana: “What’s the deal? This isn’t ready to eat!”

And we can break it down even further: What exactly do you think of when someone mentions a chili dog? A hot dog with chili, sure; what else?

Well, if you’re in the Cincinnati area, you should probably expect a generous helping of sharp grated cheddar. Up around Coney Island, you’re more likely to get a heavy layer of onions than any cheese—which is why a chili dog with no cheese in Cincinnati is called a Coney Island. Or you could order a spicier Texas chili dog … but only if you’re in New Jersey or Pennsylvania.

Confused yet?

My point is, we make assumptions based on our own interpretations of something we hear. At the core, that’s almost always the basis of our arguments, whether they’re about politics, race, money, a spat with the spouse … or something really important, like hot dogs. We all know exactly what we mean when we say it, but the words we use leave enough vague wiggle room that the other side can make it mean something completely different: the end result is ever only going to be based on YOUR experience.

Which is why it’s important to try things—like all the myriad variations of hot dogs—for yourself. Don’t take society’s word for it, don’t take Hollywood’s word for it … don’t even take OUR word for it. You’ll never know until you experience it for yourself.