The Rule of Awkward Silence

“[T]he rule of awkward silence is simple: When faced with a challenging question, instead of answering, you pause and think deeply about how you want to answer. This is no short pause; rather, it involves taking several seconds (10, 20, or longer) to think things through before responding.

If you’re on the receiving end–and not used to this type of communication style–it can seem very awkward.”

—Justin Bariso, “Intelligent Minds Like Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos Embrace the Rule of Awkward Silence. You Should Too.” Inc. September 9, 2020.

What’s Wrong With Twitter: #TooFarLeft

“The hashtag ‘TooFarLeft’ trended on Twitter on Saturday morning, in part because of comments made Friday by former President Obama…Obama spoke at a fundraising meeting Friday evening and warned donors of the danger of the 2020 Democratic primary field moving too far to the left.”

-Marty Johnson, “‘Too Far Left’ hashtag trends on Twitter.” TheHill.com. November 16, 2019.

I don’t use Twitter. But, I read this piece and thought it might be a useful corrective. The Overton Window for political discourse in the United States runs from the moderate conservatism of your run-of-the-mill educated liberal elite to the extremist ideologies of the radical right. If this is your starting point, then it’s not terribly difficult to be “too far left” of the bounds of this framework.

But, scanning through the #toofarleft hashtag, I almost immediately had misgivings. We need to redefine the boundaries of our political conversation, if for no other reason to diversify the universe of views, foster creative solutions to problems and make the conversation more interesting. It is clear to me that this is not what is happening on Twitter.

We need more people speaking with perspectives from the Left because that is what is missing. But, identity isn’t a perspective. Identity informs a perspective.

We cannot share our lived experience. It is impossible to convey what it’s like to be a combat veteran, mother, addict or any of the other infinite aspects of our selves that inform our understanding of the world. Yet, the arguments frequently offered these days take the form of: “As an X…” You’ve immediately reduced your experience to that one thing and you’ve alienated your audience by referencing an experience they don’t share.

Or, if they do share it, chances are they already share your perspective. You’re preaching to the choir and alienated everyone else. And this is true everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you a devote Catholic against abortion talking about souls, a scientist advocating for artificial intelligence, or protesting in the Extinction Rebellion, you have to start not with yourself but with the perspective of The Other; we all do.

This is one of the central problems with social media. It erases the audience, or rather, you become your own audience, with the rest of the world listening in on your interior dialogue. Why would we want to do that to ourselves or to the world?

Bringing a Knife to a Fruit Fight

Apple: A good knife wants to cut you.
Orange: Huh?
Apple. A good knife wants to cut you.
Orange. Why would a good wife...
Apple. A good *knife* wants to cut you.
Orange. Cutlery doesn't cut you.
Apple. A sharp knife will slice the off-hand.
Orange. Spoons are safer than knives. Use a spoon.
Apple. Two-edged blades, split both ways.
Orange. Yet, an ax still chops, either way.
Apple. A ax does not cleave the cutlass or slash the sabre.
Orange. To perforate, try words, looks, needles and hooks.
Apple. A sandal beats steel with no handle.
Orange. Loose cannons, don't step on knives.
Apple. Stir with a knife, stir up strife.
Orange. Dipping for honey, licking the shiv.
Apple. Taste of onion, blame the blade.
Orange. Are you trying to say something?
Apple. I am saying something.
Orange. Are you? Or, are you being dull?

OpenBSD’s Guide to Netiquette

The OpenBSD’s mailing list page netiquette section is excellent. It is a distillation of how to communicate online, i.e.:

  • Plain text, 72 characters per line [or simplest formatting available]
  • Do your homework before writing
  • Include a useful subject line [or headline]
  • Trim your signature
  • Stay on topic
  • Include important information
  • Respect differences in opinion and philosophy

Using only plain text is extreme outside of email. But, the idea that formatting should not get in the way of content is good. Know what you are talking about. Help others to understand. Give them all the relevant information. Trim out anything that does not move the discussion forward or is confusing. Treat everyone with respect.

It’s good advice for any kind of communication and for life. It’s relevant to writing an email, a newsletter, a blog post, an article or anything else you may do.

The Danger of Small Talk

“The Finnish don’t believe in talking bullshit.”

—Laura Studarus. “How the Finnish Survive Without Small Talk.” BBC.com. October 17, 2018.

Small talk is a social lubricant. It creates openings, fills in gaps in conversation, and eases partings. In environments with complex social networks that extend past our Dunbar numbers, social anxiety is a natural byproduct of the environment. Small talk eases this anxiety.

Gossip also has these features. It can be useful in communicating social standing in a group. It’s how reputations are made. But, it is can also be damaging if it becomes the focus of interaction, where what others think and will say about us within a group polices group behavior, leading to inauthentic lives.

Small talk has a similar problem. Sure, it can signal social connection and paper over awkward moments. But, it can also become a crutch that we rely on so much that we do it instead of making any kind of meaningful connection with others, which can easily heighten our feelings of social anxiety and disconnection.

If You Say Something Is “Likely,” How Likely Do People Think It Is?

Suggestions for improving forecasting and communication about it:

  1. Use probabilities instead of words to avoid misinterpretation
  2. Use structured approaches to set probabilities
  3. Seek feedback to improve your forecasting

—Andrew Mauboussin and Michael J. Mauboussin. “If You Say Something Is “Likely,” How Likely Do People Think It Is?Harvard Business Review. July 3, 2018.

Sites like Good Judgment can be a useful exercise in making predictions and getting feedback on the results.

The Problem With Talking, Illustrated Via The Law Enforcement Interview

“You, dear readers, know my advice about talking to the FBI: don’t. If the FBI — or any law enforcement agency — asks to talk to you, say ‘No, I want to talk to my lawyer, I don’t want to talk to you,’ and repeat as necessary. Do not talk to them ‘just to see what they want.’ Do not try to ‘set the facts straight.’ Do not try to outwit them. Do not explain that you have ‘nothing to hide.’

Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up…”

—Ken White, “Everybody Lies: FBI Edition.” Popehat.com. December 4, 2017.

The key point is that our communication styles and habitual ways of thinking do not line up well when the focus becomes capital T “Truth”. We’re fallible human beings that frequently do not know the truth about ourselves, the world around us or even the truth about all the relevant context of events in which we take part.

Imagine, for example, the CIA operative that was involved in clandestine operations in South American countries in the 1980’s. Should this person be teaching college-level history courses based on their subject knowledge, particularly because they are acquainted with what was happening “behind the scenes”? Or, does his subjective experience compomise his ability to convey the truth in a more complete way?

I’d argue being involved in something compromises both our ability to explicitly know the truth of it, and there is also always an implicit knowledge informing our understanding that we cannot communicate in an explicit way that makes all communication false on some level. 

In most social circumstances, this ambiguity and imprecision helps us all get along, allowing us to rationalize or interpret things how we wish. But, in the context of a law enforcement interview, this flexibility is how cases are built against people.