What we signal when we speak: Verbal tee-ups, honesty, and tact

In “Why Verbal Tee-Ups Like ‘To Be Honest’ Often Signal Insincerity: James W. Pennebaker, of the University of Texas, Austin, says these phrases are a form of dishonesty,” Elizabeth Bernstein ends with a quote: “You are more likely to seem like someone who is perfectly honest when you are no longer commenting on it.”

That’s probably true in some situations, but verbal tee-ups are (often) a decorous way of saying, “I’m going to say something you don’t want to hear” or “I’m potentially going to violate social convention by saying this.” They’re demonstrating social deftness by pre-empting feelings of the receiver saying or thinking, “This person is a jerk.”

In many cases qualifiers should be eliminated, but they exist for a reason and, as someone sometimes accused of being an asshole when I’m being honest (or trying to be), I’m aware of why verbal tee-ups are often deployed the way they’re deployed. Bernstein says, “for the listener, these phrases are confusing. They make it fairly impossible to understand, or even accurately hear, what the speaker is trying to say.” She’s right—the phrases are sometimes confusing. But sometimes they make it easier to hear what the speaker is saying. Bernstein does write:

Her advice is either to abort your speaking mission and think about whether what you wanted to say is something you should say, or to say what you want to say without using the phrase. “Eliminating it will automatically force you to find other more productive ways to be diplomatic,” Ms. Jovin says.

In general thinking about what you say, to the extent you can do so on the fly, is a good idea, but it’s also hard to do—which is probably why we get encouraged to do so so often. Qualifiers are a way of keeping your identity small while still speaking substantively. We could call the judicious use of verbal tee-ups “tact.”

The Second Machine Age — Brynjolfsson and McAfee

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies is worth reading if you haven’t read Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over or the various other books about the influence of computers, networks, and the Internet on society and the labor market. If you’ve already read some of those books, then by osmosis you’ve already The Second Machine Age.

The Second Machine AgeIn it many now-familiar stories appear: Moore’s Law, superstar economics, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, chess-playing computers, the importance of teachers in education. Each subject is worthy in itself but much of the content has appeared elsewhere. Brynjolfsson and McAfee are decent writers but no one, except maybe a machine, will mistake them for excellent stylists. They wisely import wits at appropriate moments, thus achieving specialization and appropriately divided labor:*

The journalist A. J. Liebling famously remarked that, ‘Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.’ It is no exaggeration to say that billions of people will soon have a printing press, reference library, school, and computer all at their fingertips.

Maybe: but we’re also in a race against censorship, as anyone in China knows well. The UK has instituted a mandatory porn filter on ISPs (which is the start of censorship creep) and that filter has already blocked a videogame update; how long until it “accidentally” blocks the opposition party’s website in the days before an election? The revelations from Snowden indicate that the U.S. may already have the ability to shut down Internet “printing presses” or block dissemination of their content. When such efforts are made in the future the reasoning will no doubt involve Protecting Our Children, which is already how the U.S. limits speech and conduct that is distasteful and/or disliked by most voters and the politicians they elect.

The parts about education stand out for their policy implications:

Conclusions by education researchers Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini [. . .] summarized more than twenty years of research in their book How College Affects Students. They write that ‘the impact of college is largely determined by individual effort and involvement in academic, interpersonal, and extracurricular offerings on campus.’

This work leads directly to our most fundamental recommendation to students and their parents: study hard, using technology and all other available resources to ‘fill up your toolkit’ and acquire skills and abilities that will be needed in the second machine age.

Schools often won’t do this effectively; right now it’s up to students to take on the burden themselves as best they can. But motivation is hard, and many if not all things are more easily imbibed when they’re presented by a guide who knows how to explain by analogy and where to find effective resources for learning. A lot of books are bad and that includes how-to books; one small but rarely stated purpose of teachers and professors is to read thousands of books and then recommend the handful of really good ones, or the ones most likely to be of utility to students. “Good” and “good for young / inexperienced people” are often different and experienced people can forget such an important difference.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee also write:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, records show that the electric motors did not lead to much of an improvement in performance [in early factories]. There might have been less smoke and a little less noise, but the new technology was not always reliable. Overall, productivity barely budged.

Only after thirty years—long enough for the original managers to retire and be replaced by a new generation—did factory layouts change [to accommodate electric motors]. The new factories looked much like those we see today: a single story spread out over an acre or more. Instead of a single massive engine, each piece of equipment had its own small electric motor.

Universities appear to suffer from this too, as do hospitals; perhaps we will see them change in response to conditions and to pressure generated from rising prices.

I had enough context to read the book in a few hours and wish that I’d waited for a library copy instead of buying. If you’re looking for a big-picture view of the contemporary world that grounds itself in many micro-observations, you should read The Second Machine Age. It will also help you think about your own career and life and where both should go. To some extent everyone is in the technology business, whether they realize it or not.


* Things economists love almost as much as children.

Links: Goodbye theory, the artists’s lives, coffee, Dr. Strangelove, Divorce Corp., molly, and more

* “David Winters on Elegy for Theory: Bye, Bye, Theory, Goodbye.” Except that undergrad and grad classes on theory are still mandatory in many places and much dubious “theory” still gets cited in conferences or by editors and peer reviewers. Actual death would be an improvement.

* Most writers of books don’t make enough money to live from their writing; notice this: “Together, what these patterns suggest is that few authors are getting rich off of their writing or even earning enough from their writing to quit their day jobs.”

* In keeping with the above: “Entrepreneurs of the spirit;” I’d add that the number of people who write a blog, continuously, for at least a couple years is very small.

* In keeping with a theme: Barry Eisler and Robert Gottlieb debate the future of publishing; in the short term I buy Gottlieb and in the long term I buy Eisler. The challenge is defining the terms.

* “Almost Everything in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ Was True,” which you should remember anytime you see someone working for any branch of government move their lips.

* Divorce Corp: A Movie Review, which is really a society review that should scare you.

* Why is coffee in France so bad?

* “‘I say, Charles, don’t you ever crave…’“, or, the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death.

* Politicians and cops are essentially indifferent to many people’s deaths, although the story is titled very differently; see also Daniel Okrent’s Last Call.

One definition of brilliance: willingness to appear to be the fool

From The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

[In 1939] Szilard told Einstein about the Columbia secondary-neutron experiments and his calculations toward a chain reaction in uranium and graphite. Long afterward he would recall his surprised that Einstein had not yet heard of the possibility of a chain reaction. When he mentioned it Einstein interjected, “Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht!“—”I never thought of that!” He was nevertheless, says Szilard, “very quick to see the implications and perfectly willing to do anything that needed to be done. He was willing to assume responsibility for sounding the alarm even though it was quite possible that the alarm might prove to be a false alarm. The one thing most scientists are really afraid of is to make fools of themselves. Einstein was free from such a fear and this above all is what made his position unique on this occasion.

“Einstein was free from such a fear:” are you?

(Incidentally, as Eric R. Weinstein points out, “Over the past two decades I have been involved with the war on excellence:”

In the past, many scientists lived on or even over the edge of respectability with reputations as skirt chasing, hard drinking, bigoted, misogynistic, childish, slutty, lazy, politically treacherous, incompetent, murderous, meddlesome, monstrous and mentally unstable individuals such as von Neumann, Gamow, Shockley, Watson, Einstein, Curie, Smale, Oppenheimer, Crick, Ehrenfest, Lang, Teller and Grothendieck (respectively) who fueled such epithets with behaviors that indicated they appeared to care little for what even other scientists thought of their choices.

But such disregard, bordering on deviance and delinquency, was often outweighed by feats of genius and heroism. We have spent the last decades inhibiting such socially marginal individuals or chasing them to drop out of our research enterprise and into startups and hedge funds. As a result our universities are increasingly populated by the over-vetted specialist to become the dreaded centers of excellence that infantilize and uniformize the promising minds of greatest agency.

Are you part of that war? I suspect Einstein cared little for respectability except when it came to being right.)

Looks matter and always will because they convey valuable information, and a note about the media

In “The Revolution Will Not Be Screen-Printed on a Thong” Maureen O’Connor laments that people judge each other based on looks (“Why can’t we just not obsess about bodies?”), and then kind of answers her own question:

I ask that in earnest — it’s possible that we actually can’t stop, that this compulsive corporeal scrutiny is some sort of biological imperative, or species-wide neurosis left over from millennia of treating women as chattel.

We judge each based on looks because, as Geoffrey Miller describes in Spent and others have described elsewhere, looks convey a lot of useful information about age, fertility, and health. Beyond that, women are competitive with each other in this domain because they know (correctly) that men judge them based on looks (among other things).

In addition, as Tim Harford discusses in The Logic of Life, speed dating and other research shows that women reject about 90% of those in any given speed-dating event, and men reject about 80% of women. Both men and women usually report that they want similar things—men want youth and beauty; women want height and humor. But researchers devised clever experiments in which dating pools of either men or women have changed systematically—for example, by having entirely very tall men or very short men. Yet the rate at which men and women accept or decline dates remains the same.

That implies “compulsive corporeal scrutiny” is based partially on the knowledge that any particular person will be judged based on the other people around.

I don’t bring this up merely to correct a point in an article; it’s also to observe that a lot of the stuff one reads online is based on limited knowledge. As I get older I increasingly get the impression that a lot of journalists would be better served, at least intellectually speaking, to spend more time reading books and less time… doing other things?

One thing I like about journalists or journalist-blogger hybrids like Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias is their wide, deep reading, and their willingness to connect wide, deep reading with the subjects they write about. One might disagree with them for ideological or other reasons, but they do at least know what they’re talking about and usually try to learn when they don’t. Too much of the media—whether in The Seattle Times or The Wall Street Journal or New York Magazine—is just making noise.*

Given the choice between most media and books, choose books. The challenge, of course, is finding them.

EDIT: Maybe Ezra Klein’s new mystery venture will solve some of the complaints above; he mentions “the deficiencies in how we present information” and promises “context.” I hope so, and certainly I’m not the first person to notice the many problems with the way much of the media works.


* Granted, I may be contributing to this in my own small way by contributing a link and possibly hits to a noise-making article that should be better than it is.

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