Friday, May 13, 2016

The Arbitrariness of Politeness

One of the most familiar pieces of advice in coaching, I imagine, is what Barry Michels calls "the arbitrary use of time". Readers of this blog know I recommend writing in well-defined 18- or 27-minute "writing moments", each devoted to a single paragraph. I also like to hold my coaching meetings for 27 or 54 minutes, never stopping early and never going late. When I take a break in a lecture or seminar, it always lasts exactly 7 or 11 minutes. We always start exactly when the decided amount of time has passed.

The reason for this is simple. If you know how long a moment is going to last, you are more likely to concentrate on the task it has been assigned. Imagine listening to a boring lecture, for example. If you know the speaker has been given only 20 minutes and will be stopped by the moderator when that time is up, you can tolerate the passage of time. If you think that only when the audience's patience has been exhausted will the speaker stop, then you're going to get antsy. The same goes for working on a tricky passage of your own prose. If you are only allowed to stop when you give up in frustration, that will affect the mood you work in. If you know you're going to be stuck with the task for 27 minutes but then, just as arbitrarily, freed from it, you are more likely to give it your best attention. Try it. It think you'll find I'm right.

And the idea applies not just to facing boredom or difficult material. It also applies to managing your outrage. There is a difference between the experience of a family member dominating a dinner conversation with his offensive political views and listening to a formal lecture on the subject. In the first case, there are no rules for making him stop, in the second, it is not your job to make him stop at all. This lets your mind shift into a more intellectual space.

The 45-minute lecture followed by an orderly Q&A is a way of structuring your attention. More complicated schemes can be considered. A lecture, a formal discussant or two, and then questions from the floor. Or the even more dynamic form of the Oxford-style debate, with equal time given to two sides of an issue, and a moderator to enforce the rules.

All of these are orderings of time. They are deliberate and therefore in an important sense not "arbitrary". They serve a particular purpose and can be evaluated accordingly. But they are arbitrary in an important respect: they are insensitive to the quality and content of the speech itself. Once the speaker has been given those 45 minutes it doesn't matter what she says or how badly she says it. (The exception, of course, is where the speaker says something so puzzling or offensive that there is doubt about her sanity or whether she is in the wrong room. The host can apologize and say that there must be some mistake.) I've wasted many hours in an auditorium being bored for 45 minutes out of simple politeness. That politeness is not a trivial matter. It is the condition of the possibility of all the interesting lectures I've attended that were not interrupted by people who merely disagreed with the speaker. They were being polite too.

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