Saturday, November 2, 2013


Hello, John, how are you?
I am fine Sally, and you?
Very well, thank you. Beautiful day, isn't it?
Yes, it is a beautiful day. Good bye, Sally!
Goodbye, John!

Whether you're a beginning language student or a native speaker, cliched dialogs are mindless bits of conversational fluff requiring little thought. The cadences of such conversations are delivered on auto-pilot, and this can be problematic if one party needs the other to pay close attention. The most dangerous example is "Keep this to yourself".

The next time you need to pause a discussion to ask someone to keep something confidential, pay close attention to their response. They'll hastily and effusively assure you of their complete and absolute discretion the moment they catch your drift - before you've actually explained what needs to be kept secret and why.

They won't hear any such explanation, because they'll have flipped into "keeping a secret mode", which isn't about secret-keeping, per se. Rather, it's about effusively assuring the other person via the usual yadda-yadda so that the conversation can continue. That's all it is: moving the dialog along. Beautiful day, isn't it, Sally? Yes, it is a beautiful day, John.

These snatches of canned conversation take place in a semi-trance state. It's a little bit like how when two people speak at the same time, and one invites the other to go ahead, he will often begin with "I was just gonna say...." That verbiage is devoid of information, and the person who says it isn't fully conscious at the moment. It's about rhythm, pace and continuity. Flow. They're revving themselves back up to conversational speed after the interruption, and doing so with a snippet of unconscious patterned dialog they've heard others use. Nothing's actually being said, even though someone's vocalizing.

"Keeping a secret" mode is, similarly, a canned conversational placeholder delivered in a light trance. What's essentially being said is non-informational; it's all gesture and posture, as if to say "Of course I'll keep this secret! You know me; I never say anything to anyone about anything! My default setting is to shut my mouth and assume complete silence as I go through my day to day life! You can trust me!"

Nonsense. We share things we're told all the time. It's what human beings do. If close, solicitous attention isn't paid to what, specifically, must be kept quiet, then it's just empty assurance. If you've ever met a special forces soldier or an Apple exec - or anyone else who really, truly needs to keep secrets - you'll observe that there's effort involved. Such people have put thought into what can and can't be said, and discipline is exercised. Keeping secrets is hard work. It's not nothing. But given that we've habitually reduced the request for secrecy to sleepy patterned behavior, it's extremely difficult to establish a bona fide secret.

Indeed, secrets are broadcasted all the time. And it's not that people are compulsively loose-lipped. It's just that it's nearly impossible to get them to focus on (much less execute) a commitment to keep quiet. Tranced-out, patterned gesturing represents the very opposite of the keen attention required to establish real discretion. It's a serious problem.

Some time back, a lawyer friend was trying to drum up investment for an enterprise we were working on together. I asked him to fill in one of his contacts about our project, but only after swearing the guy to secrecy. He got back to me to say that the investor wanted me to know he really liked the idea, and that he had a friend who was also interested in investing.

I blinked for a moment. Wait a minute. How did that friend even hear about what we were doing? The lawyer stammered something about how the guy hadn't blabbed or anything; that he'd just briefly filled in his friend. But wasn't that precisely what he'd promised not to do?

The lawyer (who should have known better) had allowed the confidentiality assurance to be canned and unconscious. It hadn't sunk in. It's not that the investor was being duplicitous. He hadn't, after all, made the slightest effort to cover up the broken promise. It's that no conscious promise was made; just a fluffy bit of yadda-yadda (I refused to get involved with the guy; not because he was dishonest, but because I couldn't trust him to steadily respect his commitments.)

This is why many people in such circumstances ask people to sign non-disclosure agreements, threatening legal action if secrets are blabbed. Such documents are laughably unenforceable; all they are is a means for getting a person to focus - really focus - on exactly what's being asked of them, and what they're promising. But, predictably, even the signing of these things has sunk into unconscious habitual behavior. There are no easy routes cutting through this hindrance!

Human beings appear to be uncontrollably blabber-mouthed, dishonest, and duplicitous. But much of that behavior stems from foggy-headedness rather than villainy. Per Leff's Fourth Law, 95% of apparent maliciousness is actually incompetence.

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