My latest column at PJ Media is a change of pace from the usual health care writing. It is entitled, “Should You Have to Speak with Others in a Way the Government Can Understand?

I discuss the demands by the federal government for “backdoor” access into your encrypted smartphone data and communications. Fortunately, Apple and Google are standing up to the government’s demands.  I explain why they are right to do so.

 

 

Jul 022014
 

On Thursday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll discuss the “three languages of politics” with my own Paul Hsieh. The concept is not original to Paul, but rather the work of economist Arnold Kling.

If you’re at all interested in politics and political debate, you’ll surely profit from our discussion. If you’re like Paul and me, you’ll find that the “three languages” reframes your whole view of political debates in America today. Plus, that conceptual framework helps you become a more sympathetic listener to other people’s political views — and more persuasive in discussions with them — very quickly. That seems like a win to me!

If you’d like to read a bit about the three languages before or after Thursday’s interview, check out this podcast with Arnold Kling on EconTalk. Also, Kling’s monograph — aptly titled The Three Languages of Politics — is available on Amazon for just $1.99.

See you on Thursday evening!

How to Win Friends and Influence People

 Posted by on 8 November 2013 at 10:00 am  Communication
Nov 082013
 

I’ve just begun re-reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People in preparation for Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio. So far, it’s a bit painful.

The first principle — “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain” — certainly has some application. You don’t want that negative mode with people to be your default. You need to be careful about when you go negative with other people — and the manner in which you do it. Certainly, you don’t want to be a self-righteous and demanding jackass. That’s not just ruinous to relationships: it’s ineffective too.

The simple fact is that people appreciate being treated with a basic measure of respect. So when problems with people emerge, assuming those problems to be the product of their stupidity, carelessness, unconcern, immorality, malice, or other failings is unjust — and likely counterproductive. Instead, people should be assumed to be rational, intelligent, and concerned — with decent (even if mistaken) reasons for their actions. Using that approach, problems can be recognized and solved together, hopefully without animosity or recalcitrance.

Ultimately, of course, if you must conclude that a person is hopeless or unworthy, then do that… but don’t start with such assumptions! Oh, and if most of the people in your life aren’t worthy of such respect then you need to make some major changes to your life, pronto.

Alas, Dale Carnegie doesn’t qualify his principle — “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain” — in any way. Even worse, his justification for it is basically that every person is an unthinking emotionalist, unwilling to ever consider that he might have done wrong — just like the criminals and corrupt politicians he tells us about throughout the chapter. His core argument seems to be that every person needs to be pandered to and petted gently, because if even the worst people won’t recognize their vile wrongs, then no one else can be reasonably expected to do so. OY!

So in the opening pages, after telling a series of stories about vicious and violent criminals who claimed to be good men at heart, Carnegie claims that ordinary people are no better because “ninety-nine times out of a hundred, people don’t criticize themselves for anything, no matter how wrong it may be.” Hence, he concludes:

Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.

Later, he writes:

When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.

It’s a very dismal view of humanity he paints, in my view… and so very wrong! Happily, the chapter isn’t entirely awful. Carnegie’s stories of how to solve problems effectively — i.e., without prickly, blustering criticism — are quite good. For example:

George B. Johnston of Enid, Oklahoma, is the safety coordinator for an engineering company. One of his responsibilities is to see that employees wear their hard hats whenever they are on the job in the field. He reported that whenever he came across workers who were not wearing hard hats, he would tell them with a lot of authority of the regulation and that they must comply. As a result he would get sullen acceptance, and often after he left, the workers would remove the hats.

He decided to try a different approach. The next time he found some of the workers not wearing their hard hat, he asked if the hats were uncomfortable or did not fit properly. Then he reminded the men in a pleasant tone of voice that the hat was designed to protect them from injury and suggested that it always be worn on the job. The result was increased compliance with the regulation with no resentment or emotional upset.

Basically, Mr. Johnston was able to solve a problem by treating these workers with respect, rather than barking commands at them. Fancy that!

Rhetorical Analysis: A Preview

 Posted by on 21 August 2013 at 10:00 am  Communication
Aug 212013
 

On tonight’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll interview Kelly Elmore about rhetoric. We’ll run through the basics concepts of rhetoric, plus do some rhetorical analysis for ourselves. (I’ll definitely rely on the help of people in the chat for that!)

I’ve wanted to this interview ever since Kelly’s two-session discussion at ATLOSCon 2013. It was fascinating — not just for geeky little me, but for everyone in the class.

The main focus of our rhetorical analysis was this poster (click to enlarge):

Once we dug into that image, I was amazed by how much the class managed to extract from it — with Kelly’s help, of course. (As a contrasting case, we analyzed a Ford truck ad too, but that wasn’t nearly so interesting or powerful.) It was fascinating — and empowering — to explicitly identify the ways in which such “messaging” impacts us.

Kelly has given me the images that we’ll analyze on tomorrow’s interview, so I can share them with you now. They are:

And (click to enlarge):

In other news, I’ve decided to start eating vegan and wearing foundation. :-)

May 272013
 

It’s commonly said that tone is lost in email in such a way that often exacerbates conflicts. Certainly, that’s true. Recently, I realized part of the reason why that’s true.

Email is just words, and tone is largely communicated by vocal patterns and body language. Hence, tone is not communicated well via email. That’s a problem, since the same words, delivered maliciously or benevolently, have very different effects. However, that’s not the core problem in and of itself.

The core problem is that tone is a hugely important element of communication, such that readers will infer tone from whatever information they have available to them. With email, that means that tone is largely inferred from background knowledge about and judgments of the writer.

When a relationship is well-established as friendly (or malignant), the absence of tone in the communication isn’t much of a problem: the tone intended will likely be the tone inferred. However, when people are in conflict, the fact that tone isn’t communicated but rather inferred is a recipe for disaster.

In such cases, the reader will easily read a tone into the text that the writer didn’t intend without being aware of doing so. So a perfectly ordinary statement might be interpreted as snide or mean if the reader feels vulnerable and defensive due to an unresolved conflict with the writer. As a result, the conflict will often escalate suddenly, even though the writer intended the opposite.

That possibility is why it’s so important to pick up the phone to have some kind of real conversation when in the midst of a conflict with another person. (Better yet, meet with the person in person or via video call.) That’s often really hard for people. It’s really hard for me. I’m not concerned about the greater precision of writing, as some people are. Rather, I prefer the emotional distance of email for the simple reason that conflict is difficult and unpleasant.

Alas, that greater precision and distance often comes at a steep price — namely, prolonging or worsening the conflict. That’s worth remembering, I think, when considering whether to write that email or not.

 

(I wrote this for Philosophy in Action’s Newsletter back in September 2012, but it’s still relevant.)

A few days ago, I was riding my horse in our neighborhood arena while a father was attempting to teach his son to ride a bike in the grass. The father would push the son forward on the bike, and the son was supposed to pedal. However, even from a distance, I could tell that the son was getting scared and freezing. Instead of pedaling, he’d put his feet down into the grass and come to stop. The father had an excellent opportunity to talk to his son about overcoming fears.

Alas, that’s not what happened. Even from a distance, I could hear the father yell to his son in frustration, “If you’d only pedaled when I told you!” and “Why aren’t you listening to me?” Obviously, that didn’t help the boy pedal any better!

The father was making a very serious mistake in taking his son’s failure personally. He was seeing it as a failure to obey, rather than focusing on the son’s actual problem — namely, the difficulty of overcoming fears. As a result, the son was not only deprived of useful help about managing those fears, but also burdened with feelings of guilt too. Even worse, the father was telling the son that the son’s own judgment (including his fears) were not nearly as important as obeying the father’s commands. Oy.

Happily though, the father seemed to muster some better control over himself after that burst of anger. He stopped yelling, and the tension seemed to ease. Hopefully, he realized his error. Hopefully, he’ll stop himself sooner next time.

I’m not immune from the error of atttemping to dictate others — whether children, animals, co-workers, friends, or husband. I suspect that I’m not alone in that! So here are a few suggestions, which you can take or leave:

When you find yourself growing frustrated by the fact that other people aren’t doing what you’ve told them to do, remind yourself that they’re not likely attempting to spite you. Perhaps you didn’t give clear instructions. Perhaps you’ve asked too much of them. Perhaps they saw problems with your plan that you missed. Perhaps their goals don’t mesh well with yours.

Instead of stewing over their failure to obey, consider how you might be genuinely helpful. You might want to ask them if they want help. You might want to clarify your instructions. You might want to just keep your mouth shut.

Whatever the circumstances, acting like a petty tyrant is always the wrong answer. Nothing alienates rational thinkers — young and old — more quickly.

 

Back in January, the internet was agog over the report that a pastor objected to the 18% gratuity added to her bill for being part of a large party by writing on the receipt, “I give God 10% why do you get 18?”

The proper answer, of course, is provided by Grumpy Cat:

Your waitress offers you a genuine service, in exchange for your tip… God, not so much.

However, what I find particularly interesting about the story from an ethical perspective lie in the details of what happened at the restaurant and afterwards.

[Chelsea Welch's co-worker [at an Applebee's in the St. Louis area] had waited on a large party hosted by Pastor Alois Bell of the World Deliverance Ministries Church in Granite City, Ill. As is common at many restaurants, an 18 percent tip was automatically added to the bill.

Pastor Bell crossed out the automatic tip and wrote “0″ on the receipt, along with this message: “I give God 10% why do you get 18?”

Welch, who did not wait on Pastor Bell’s table took a photo of the bill and uploaded it to Reddit where it soon went viral. “I thought the note was insulting, but it was also comical,” Welch told TheConsumerist. “I posted it to Reddit because I thought other users would find it entertaining.”

Bell, who did not see the humor in this, complained to the restaurant’s manager. Bell told The Smoking Gun she did not expect her signature to be all over the Internet.

Applebee’s confirms that Welch was fired. In a statement, the company says:

“Our Guests’ personal information – including their meal check – is private, and neither Applebee’s nor its franchisees have a right to share this information publicly. We value our Guests’ trust above all else. Our franchisee has apologized to the Guest and has taken disciplinary action with the Team Member for violating their Guest’s right to privacy. This individual is no longer employed by the franchisee.”

Pastor Bell told The Smoking Gun she is sorry for what happened and points out that she left a $6.29 cash tip on the table.

“My heart is really broken,” she told them. “I’ve brought embarrassment to my church and my ministry.”

As this story makes clear, the waitress didn’t intend for anyone to be able to identify the pastor in question, and she took measures to prevent that identification. Alas, the power of the internet was too great. Also, the waitress reports that the pastor “contacted her Applebee’s location, demanding that everyone be fired, from the servers involved to the managers.” (That’s a quote from the article, not from the waitress.)

On the one hand, I understand why Applebee’s fired the server who posted the receipt. The restaurant wants its customers to feel secure in their privacy while on premises, particularly in their dealings with their employees, particularly in their financial transactions.

Nonetheless, in this age of social media, people’s expectations of privacy must change… or they will get burned. If you’re in public, your antics might be broadcast far and wide across the internet for other people’s amusement. Then, if you act petulant and bossy about that, as this pastor seemed to do, you’ll be lambasted even more.

Ultimately, a person needs to be responsible for his own privacy. That requires thinking in advance about what he wishes to keep private or not. That requires attention to what he says and does in view or earshot of other people. That requires being selective about what he emails or posts online. That requires providing appropriate context for public actions if he wants to avoid being misjudged.

A rational person does not broadcast his private activities to the world, then blame others for taking notice.

Apr 152013
 

Here are three more tips for email. (The first three are here: Three Tips on Managing Email.) As before, your mileage may vary.

(1) Don’t assume that you should respond to an email with another email. A phone call or in-person chat might be more efficient and effective. In some cases, the precision of writing is worthwhile, but in many cases, you’re consuming too much time in writing — and asking others to consume too much time in reading. Or, in the case of conflicts, you can seriously worsen the conflict by miscommunication, particularly in tone.

(2) Be ruthelessly purposeful about your email communications. Identify the purpose of every email you write before you begin writing — and then write the email according to that purpose. Don’t just write a reply in order to get another message out of your inbox. (Yes, I’m guilty of that on occasion!)

(3) If an email requires some action of you that you can’t completely in two minutes or less, create a task for it in your task list. Don’t let it languish in your inbox as a reminder; it’s too likely to be missed, and it just clutters up your inbox in the meantime.

Now, I’m off to go plow through my inbox… hopefully with all due care and purpose!

Note: I published a version of the above commentary in Philosophy in Action’s Newsletter a while back. Subscribe today!

Apr 052013
 

Here, I offer you three tips on managing e-mail, partly inspired by the awesome podcasts of Manager Tools. (As with all such advice, your mileage may vary.)

(1) Don’t leave your email opening and running all day. It’s a major distraction from your work, and it leaves you feeling like all that you do is email. Instead, schedule blocks of time in which to process your email — and do nothing else. That focus will improve the quality of your emails, while decreasing the time required. (GAH. I need to start doing this again… and closing Facebook too!)

(2) Be willing to give very short replies to emails — or no reply at all. Just because someone emails you doesn’t give them a right to your time. Make sure that you’re not sacrificing what matters most to you in responding to other people’s emails.

(3) Make the purpose of your email clear to the recipeint at the outset: give the summary of what you’re telling or asking at the very top to set the context. Yesterday, I received a lovely email from a fan of Philosophy in Action. Alas, it began with two big paragraphs of personal history (700 words), and the request for an interview was left to the bottom. Not only might I have missed the request if I’d just skimmed the email, but I didn’t understand the relevance of any of the personal history as I was reading it. Putting the interview request at the top would have helped me understand the email better.

In essence, be focused, selfish, and purposeful in your emails!

Note: I published a version of the above commentary in Philosophy in Action’s Newsletter a while back. Subscribe today!

Digital Manners

 Posted by on 27 March 2013 at 10:00 am  Communication, Etiquette, Technology
Mar 272013
 

This article — Disruptions: Digital Era Redefining Etiquette — raises some fascinating questions about the evolution of manners with the rise of the internet, social media, and other new technology. It begins:

Some people are so rude. Really, who sends an e-mail or text message that just says “Thank you”? Who leaves a voice mail message when you don’t answer, rather than texting you? Who asks for a fact easily found on Google?

Don’t these people realize that they’re wasting your time?

Of course, some people might think me the rude one for not appreciating life’s little courtesies. But many social norms just don’t make sense to people drowning in digital communication.

For me, the burden of online communications doesn’t come from the mere inflow per se: I’m good at reviewing, then deleting or archiving my incoming mail. (Hence, I do send those little thank-yous, as I like to acknowledge receipt and express appreciation.)

The major burden lies in what I need to do in response to some email — not just replying (which often requires a bit of research), but also making decisions, updating projects, and the like. The problem is compounded when I receive the information by some means other than email — such as a Facebook message, tweet, or text message. Those venues are perfect for quick replies, and I prefer them to email for that. But I never use them as storage, as I do my email inbox. So if I can’t reply right away, then they’ll just be forgotten. (That’s not always a bad thing!)

I expect that managing my online communications will always be something of a struggle. Yet over the last few years, I’ve done better in two ways.

  • I improved my implementation of Getting Things Done, thanks to some tips that Andrew Miner offered in this interview. I don’t have projects masquerading as tasks any longer. I don’t use artificial deadlines. Instead, I’ve gotten in the habit of making progress on critical areas of focus by just reviewing my projects and tasks, then buckling down to get some stuff done. (Amazingly, that works!)
  • I’ve developed the habit of writing very short emails. I almost never discuss anything other than logistics via email: if I want to have a serious conversation, that must be done in person or via the phone. Or, if a person has a philosophic question, that should be submitted to the queue. I engage in substantive discussion in Facebook comments pretty regularly though. That’s because others chime in with interesting remarks, the medium encourages short comments and dialogue, and I can simply drop out when I get busy.

At this point, I wonder what I can and should do to function better. So… what have you done over the past few years that has helped you better manage your digital communications?

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