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The Value Of Straight Talk

Brian D. Rude, 1974

      I walked into the bank the other day and noticed a kid sit­ting in a chair. He said something to me and I ignored him. My first impression was that he was a cheeky kid. He was at his ease in the chair. I didn’t catch what he said to me, but I did notice that his voice was confident, rather airy even. As I wrote out a check I heard him say to his mother, “Where’s the engineer?” His mother replied, “Well he hasn’t come yet.” “Then when’s he coming? There's his cap.”, the kid replied. There indeed was his cap. The bank, a drive-in branch facility, was a remodeled railroad depot, and relics of earlier railroad years were displayed as a decorative theme.

      The kid was rather young. I never got a real good look at him, but he might have been old enough to understand that the engineer’s cap was just part of the decor. At any rate what appeared to me as a straightforward question, “Where’s the engineer?” was not given a straight answer. The question was taken as a game by his mother. She answered in a riddle. She implied there was an engineer involved, which of course was wrong. By giving this implication the kid was confused. He had the choice of going after straight information, or of joining the game. Of course he joined the game.

      The object of the game is to be one up on the opponent by coming up with the smarter remark, the wiser wisecrack, or the more obscure riddle. The kid was of course not too skilled in this, but I expect he will be when he grows up. I cannot remember much of the rest of their conversation, which continued for five or ten more turns before they left. However for illustration I will reconstruct a few more turns.

"Where’s the engineer?"
"Well he hasn’t come yet:"
"When’s he coming? There’s his cap.”
"It may be a long time."
"How long?"
"Long enough for a little boy to learn a lot of things."

      The boy is perfectly aware that his mother is implying things without coming right out and saying them. Being not too skilled in this game his only technique is persistence. His mother, being very skilled, of course keeps him off balance.

      Just what, it might be asked, is the evidence that this is indeed a game? Until I started putting this on paper I couldn’t much say. It was just my instant analysis that it was a game. However there are several lines of evidence that can be cited. First of all the boy spoke to me when I walked in the bank. This is not quite normal for kids. Parents usually teach them early in life not to speak to strangers. Further it was not a simple “Hi” that he said, to me. Rather it was some statement or another, though I didn’t quite catch it. I’ll conjecture that he was eliciting a little game of his own. A second line of evidence that they were gaming is that the kid gave an immediate comeback to each reply of his mother. This can happen with any child of course, but my experience has been that when straight information is being given, the child does not immedietely reply. I would expect a non-gaming kid to look at the cap again, after his mother had. answered his question, think for a minute, and then, in a rather serious tone, ask another question. Then the kid’s questions come so quickly and lightly, combined with a demeanor of nonchalance, then I automatically expect something besides information transmission is going on.

      The last statement by the mother is perhaps the most telling evidence of gaming. Though I expect I didn’t quote her verbatim I think I accurately gave the essence of her remark. Without coming right out and saying so, she implied that the kid should be quiet. She squelched him. She won a point. I don’t remember if the kid had a comeback to that or not. I expect he kept talking. A gamer quickly leans to ignore it when an opponent scores a point.

      It is a part of human nature to unthinkingly take up the rules and goals of the conventional game. “A society can be defined as a group of individuals competing for conventional prizes by conventional means.” This definition is by V.C. Wynne-Edwards. I am familiar with it only because Robert Ardrey talks about it in The Social Contract. When I first read it it didn’t make much impression on me. But now it does. I don’t know if this is a definition of society so much as simply a characteristic of human nature. At any rate it is an important characteristic of human nature. We use conventional means to attain conventional goals. We blindly accept these conventional means and goals for the most part. If the game is to see who can acquire the most status symbols then that’s the game we unthinkingly play. If the game is to see who can display the most anti-establishment values then that’s the game we adopt. In the example above the kid unquestioningly accepted his mother’s game. The conventional goal is to win a point, to squelch the other. The conventional means is verbal interplay.

      Individual competitiveness varies of course, and so does individual insight into human nature. Not everyone is a blind gamer. But by and large the pattern is evident. We compete for conventional goals by conventional means. We learn these conventional goals and means from imitation. It is not surprising that this little kid was adopting his mo­ther’s game.

      I saw a very similar illustration when taking a college course in chemistry. We were in the laboratory doing an experiment that nobody understood too well. We were mostly just following the “recipe”, without too much understanding of the whys and wherefores. After filtering a solution a student next to me asked the instructor, “Are we supposed to save this water?” “I don’t want it”, replied the inructor. They then continued several more turns:

S: "Maybe I’ll take it home.”
I: "Set it in a bottle and look at it.”
S: "I doubt if there’s much market for it.”

      This student is normally not a gamer. I knew him well enough for that. However all it took was one gamey reply to his question and he unthinkingly joined in the competition. It was not a vicious competition by any means, and basically he got the answer to his question - throw out the water. But it does illustrate the ease in which this game can be entered.

      If straight talk is valuable then what I have been saying about gaming is important. But so far I have said little about the value of straight talk.

      The value of straight talk is good communication. As a teacher I am acutely aware of this. There is a tremendous mass of information that needs to be passed on. To accomplish this efficiency of communication is important. My thesis is that straight talk is most effective and efficient.

      Consider the amount of information transmitted by the mother to her son in the first example. It was minimal. Even more important it was confusing. The kid may have suspected from the start that the engineer's cap was just decoration. But he ended up with no definite knowledge. If he was in doubt when he started the conversation, he was even more in doubt when he finished it.

      If this were all there was to it then we might call it a harmless little game. Indeed it is possible that the kid was older than I thought and was perfectly aware of what the engineer's cap was doing there. However how can we know that the kid will get the straight dope when he asks about something he is actually unsure of? Chances are he will not. His mother may think she knows what her boy does and does not know, but she cannot always be accurate.

      What value will this kid put on accurate information? I think he has already shown the answer to that. He puts a greater value on winning points in his game than in gaining information. What happens if this attitude, this higher value on gaming than on information, is carried over to his school work? He will be at a serious disadvant­age in gaining information. He will not be aware of this of course, not for a number of years at least. But irregardless his education will not be as effective as it should be. I think a teacher with a little insight as to what’s going on can help the kid considerably, simply by giving the kid straight information and refusing to join in his game. It would be better though, if the game were never started, for my experience is that many teachers would just join him in his game. I've seen it happen.

      Straight talk is valuable in the acquisition of information. When this information is about human relations then accurate information is even more important. Consider the following hypothetical conversation. The words in parenthesis are thought, not spoken.

A. “Did you like your birthday present I gave you?
B. “What ever possessed you to get something like that?”
A. “Oh, I just thought maybe you’d like something different.” (Does he like it or doesn’t he?)
B. “Well it’s different all, right.” (He knows darn well I don’t like that color.)
A. “Different enough to put me in my place I guess.” (Ingrate!)
B. “You said it, not I.”
A. “Well if you don’t like it, why don’t you come right out and say so?”
B. “I didn’t say I didn’t like it.”
A. "You're not too enthused over it.”
B. “If the shoe fits, wear it.”
A. “Are you accusing me of some­thing?”
B. “I’m not accusing anyone.” etc, etc, etc.

      The techniques of this type of verbal sparring constitute a field of study in itself. In passing I might point out that the use of deniable statements and guilt mongering are very evident. But for now the important point is whether or not pertinent information has been transmitted. In this example there are several pieces of information that should be conveyed. In straight talk this would be:

A. “Did you like your birthday present I gave you?”
B. “I don’t like that color. Didn't t you know that?”
A. "No, I didn't.”
B. "Well that explains it. I thought maybe you were just trying to bug me with that color.
A and B can then proceed to exchange the gift or whatever they went to do. The point is that accurate information has been transmitted and this accurate information is a sound basis for future action.

      Person A began the conversation by asking for information. In this example the information is of a type that cannot really be expected to be neutral, that is free of considerations of feeling. However it sometimes happens that one party has no warning that the information received might not be the straight dope. The following example is the personal experience of a friend when she was young. She asked her father what it means to say that the English “drop their H’s”. He replied that when a queen is replaced by a king, or vice versa, then they change the "H" in “HMS” from an "H" , standing for “His Majesty’s Ship” to an “H” standing for “her Majesty’s Ship”. When they do this sailors have to scrub off the old “H” from all the ships and replace it with a new one. This is what is meant by “dropping the H’s”. A few years later my friend discovered this was a joke and felt resentful. A request for accurate information had been met with a joke on her. This is not only poor transmission of information, it is also destructive to the relationship.

      “The silent treatment" is another technique of gaming used by those who don’t believe in straight talk. Person A suddenly starts ignoring Person B and B doesn’t know why. Person A is perfectly confident that B knows why and is using silence to indicate his displeasure with B. Person B may have any one of a number of Possible responses:

      1. B may be mystified. “I didn’t forget his birthday,” she thinks, “I did the dishes like I said I would. He can’t be mad about that incident last week cause the silence didn’t start till yesterday . . . .

      2. B may have several possible causes in mind for A’s silence, but not know which is the more likely. “He’s either mad about me not doing the dishes, in which case I better do them, or else he’s mad because I broke another glass, in which case I better let him do the dishes."

      3. B may know exactly what’s wrong with A, but have no idea how to make amends.

      4. B may know exactly what’s wrong with A, but feel A just wants to pout for a while.

      5. B may know exactly what’s wrong with A, but refuse to take the initiative in making up.

      6. B may figure A is just in a pouting mood, and wants to be left alone.

      7. B may figure A is just in a pouting mood and wants some sympathy.

      8. B may figure A is just in a pouting mood and needs a good old fashioned fight to get over it.

      9. B figures A is feeling sorry for himself.

      10. B figures A is feeling sorry for B.

      etc, etc, etc.

      A thinks he is transmitting a message to B, but he is not. In straight talk the message would. be:

      “B, I wish you wouldn’t throw the matchsticks in the sink. It bugs me.”

      Use of the silent treatment has a disadvantage besides just poor transmission of information. It elicits resentment and hostility from the recipient of the silent treatment, and, since it is basically a move in a game, it elicits more gaming.

      A person using the silent treatment is asking the other to draw his own conclusions. There are other situations in which the recipient of information is asked to draw his own conclusions. Some of these situations are far removed from the petty bickering I have been describing. In most cases the conclusions drawn can be entirely different from the conclusions desired. I learned this early in my teaching career. I would duplicate an exercise and give it to the class. Example:

      “A polygon is a closed figure with straight sides, such as a square or a triangle. A pentagon is a closed figure having five straight sides. A pentagon is a __?___.”

      I would figure no one could possibly miss on this exercise. They would have to fill in the blank with “polygon”. It’s obvious! I quickly found out it’s not at all obvious. I would get a wide range of answers, as “square”, “rectangele”, “defense building”, “closed figure”, “geometry”, “odd shape”, “a figure with five sides”, and numerous other unique answers. I would get the correct answer often enough too, of course, but I couldn’t depend on it. I learned to be a little more specific. Example:

      “A rectangle is a figure with four sides. A figure with four sides is a __?___.

      Even on something as straightforward as this there is plenty of room for error. Students would fill in the blank with anything from the right answer to a wild guess, and all in good faith too. It’s not that the students were dumb or anything. It’s just that asking the other guy to come to the same conclusion as you do from the same evidence is risky business. It just doesn’t always happen. This doesn’t mean that such exercises have no place in education. They have very much of a place. They just can’t stand alone. There has to be a teacher there to help out. About ten years ago or so "programmed instruction" came out as an educational fad. Programmed instruction basically means a whole book of the kind of exercises illustrated above. There’s nothing really wrong with the idea, but I think it was often used as an excuse for the teacher to let the kids work on their own without help. At any rate it proved to be no panacea.

      I understand the Puritans believed "informed consciences cannot disagree". I don’t know about “informed consciences”, but I do know about people. If you want to convey a conclusion it is not enough to convey the evidence and ask the listener to draw his own conclusion. I have no doubt that Puritan leaders told followers what conclusions they were to draw.

      Another illustration of asking the other guy to draw his own conclusions is the "Socratic method" of teaching. Supposedly Socrates asked questions to his listeners and in this manner the listener was brought to his own conclusions. I don't really know what Socrates did, but I have a firm opinion of the Socratic method. It doesn't work well.

      Asking the other follow to draw his own conclusion is a common technique in verbal gaming, It has the advantage of deniability. For the same reason it is also used in persuasion. This is especially true where the evidence is very suggestive but not conclusive. Example:

      “Women make up 5O% of the population of this country, but only l4% of the employees at the plant are women. That tells you some­thing about the management there doesn’t it?”

      Of course the proper answer to this question is “no”. The statistics do not by themselves lead to any conclusion. If the speaker in this example wants to charge discrimination against women then he should come out and do so, rather than using innuendo. This then allows the speaker’s opponent to combat a specific charge, which is better than trying to fight an innuendo. Perhaps even more important it forces the speaker and any disinterested third party to more carefully consider the evidence.

      I started out this article with a discussion of gaming. I then proceeded to other reasons for not using straight talk. In either case straight talk is not used because the speaker has a different goal in mind than good communication. At times this different goal is worthwhile. More often it is not.

      In summary then, the value of straight talk is good communication. The cost of speaking in riddles is poor communication. Therefore I take it as an axiom that verbal games should be used with caution.