Unlearn What You Were Taught In School

I sat down at the hotel bar and ordered two drinks. One for me, and one for Merry Lake. It was noisy, but about to get noisier. She arrived. We squealed, clapped, giggled and did that little #bestfriends huggy-dancy thing and pretty much caused a scene.  I’d like to tell you that we calmed ourselves down after that, but we didn’t. After all, we were in Austin, it was Merry’s birthday, it was almost my birthday, and we were kicking off SXSWi 2011.

So, we continued to pepper the hotel bar with #bestfriends-obnoxiousness and made lots of new friends along the way. One of them was Kenneth, an attorney from the Houston area. A true Texas man, Kenneth was distinctly polite with a strong southern drawl and lots of wisdom to share.

We asked him for career advice. He told us to stop talking.

Well, not stop talking, then, in that moment, but in life we should learn how and when to stop talking. The toughest part about his job, he said, was getting his clients to stop talking.

Evidently, this is a huge problem for attorneys when their clients take the stand in court.  Most people, as it so happens, feel inclined to treat each question as if it were a prompt,  spilling everything they know about the who-what-where-when-why-how in question. Attorneys coach their clients to simply answer the question as it is stated. Less is always more in the courtroom (defense), particularly in testimony.  As soon as the person on the stand gives in to the temptation to spill, spill, spill, the prosecution pounces and pokes millions of holes in the credibility of the case.

This doesn’t just happen in the courtroom. If you ask me “are you wearing eye makeup?” instead of a simple “yes,” I tell you about my philosophy of smoky eye for that day and how I tried to experiment with the minimalism trend in makeup but ended up walking out of the house wearing more makeup than Kim Kardashian.

I blame education.

In school, we’re rewarded when we answer a question with as much information as we can possibly regurgitate on a given topic. Brevity is punished in academic environments. The problem is, that brevity and focus are key to keeping things on track in the real world. More words does not make a better answer.

Then again, maybe this inclination toward chaotic chatter comes from a good place too. When people take the stand, they want to give complete answers and add value to the process. They want to be thorough.  Let’s not forget, providing a brief answer opens up space for silence, which is deafeningly uncomfortable for most of us.

Perhaps to be more effective in life, we will need to unlearn many of the behaviors that we learn in the classroom.


Photo Credit: cdsessums



  1. As with everything else it is a balancing act. Such a tricky one that it can be too much of a pain in the ass to even think about for most people.

    Brevity is the soul of wit, as Shakespeare wrote. But at the same time if we tend to be too succinct in our everyday lives we run the risk of being labeled distant, or cold. Unmotivated.

    I know because I am an introvert. I don’t go out of my way in public to meet new people and when I do, I despise making small talk with them. When at a function I tend to ask only what I must know in order to maximize my benefits, and when asked questions, I keep my answers short and to the point.

    And usually end up making zero connections with anyone.

    None of that is fair, mind you. I do not lack motivation, compassion or opinions. But I am perceived thus because I do tend to keep things short.

    The balancing act.

    • I love your comment, Ty. I hadn’t thought of it that way (introvert vs. extrovert), but you are absolutely right. How do you go about managing the balancing act between too much and too little?

  2. To be honest, I am not sure I myself have found the balance. At least not in person. The balance for me between the two may come from my writings, and my online encounters, such as this. It is not exactly the same, just yet, as an in person encounter, but if a person is an introvert, they stay one. (No matter what some guru’s will tell you about being “former introverts”.

    That being said, introverts are a spectrum, and I try to think of ways to move to the more sociable end of said spectrum, while still being authentic to who I am. The struggle continues, but I am sure there is a way to be welcoming without being falsely gregarious.

    • I would agree with you. I think that is what is so great about being able to interact like this online. You have the ability to interact authentically and actually get something out of it (not always the case with in person networking events). Being an extrovert, I can relate with what you are saying about how people perceive you. Just as as someone might perceive an introvert to be cold and aloof, they often perceive extroverts to be full of fluff and lacking substance. It is, as you’ve said, a delicate balance, but I suppose it all comes down to the ability to know your audience and adapt to your environment.

  3. Ian T Anastas says:

    Very nice. You’re absolutely right in that there seems to be some nagging need in folks (Americans at least) to elaborate and divulge. I wonder if it can be pinned to education, or simply to cultural conditioning in general. I personally don’t care for sweeping platitudes, but I think it bears mentioning that inadequacy is a pervasive trait in this country. I’m not sure if this happens to everyone, but I can’t tell you the number of people at work who go out of their way to air their dirty laundry to me. Marital issues, financial woes, personal medical history; nothing seems to be too personal to talk about with the cubie next door. It’s embarrassing, yet I can’t help but feel sorry for these people. They seem so desperate to connect, to be recognized, to be validated. I see a sad white-knuckled need for understanding in these people. Yet they never want to seem vulnerable, so the stories are always molded into an anecdotal testament to their dogged resilience, cleverness, resourcefulness, etcetera. Their seems to me to be a dual compulsion for motherly empathy and cowboy respect, and this amalgam high-wire act is thrown out to anyone who might provide it.

    • Not just in folks, even in myself. I have to admit, I often find myself feeling inclined to tell the whole story rather than just what happened in the end. I appreciate your point about cultural conditioning. I think that is an important aspect of all of this too.

      As far as the over-share of personal details goes, I’m not so sure what the right answer is (or if there is one at all). On one hand, you could argue that as humans we exist to relate to one another and sharing those personal details (even if to seek validation) is what it all about. On the other hand, you could argue that it is damaging to the relationship(especially at work)because it makes the listener uncomfortable. I think that the spectrum of what is too much and too little information to share tends to vary from person to person.

  4. James Skiff says:

    I agree with everything that you wrote. I like your friend Ty”s comment. I hate meaningless conversation. Say it, laugh and move on.

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