Monday, May 07, 2007

Telling Without Telling

Last week I saw another iteration of one of the little games that drives me crazy. At a meeting at which all of the academic deans were present, the director of a center said something to the effect of “I don't want to name any names, but some of your faculty aren't following through on their (task x). You should really stay on top of that.”

What, exactly, do people hope to achieve with statements like that?

If the statement contained some sort of verifiable fact claim -- “Dave didn't do task x last semester” -- I could do something about that. I could check, and either dismiss the claim or have a discussion with Dave.

If the statement were made privately, I could press for details, and get enough sense of the specifics to either follow up or dismiss.

But when the statement is both public and purposely vague, it's useless.

If this were the only time I'd seen something like that, I'd probably write it off to somebody either not thinking or just being chickenshit. But I've seen it a lot. It usually functions as a de facto threat. “I know something you don't know, and I'll save it until I really want to score some points against you.” Its emptiness makes it irrefutable, since there's no actual content to refute.

Alternately, it may be a passive-aggressive way of trying to instill self-doubt. “You aren't on top of what you're doing, and we know it.” This is one area where experience matters. In my early days of administration, I sometimes fell for this. Over time, you learn that some people just have issues with authority, and like to gain a sense of control by playing bizarre mindgames. Don't engage.

The most charitable interpretation is that they think I can somehow triangulate what they're talking about, and use that as the basis for action. The real world doesn't work that way.

On the few occasions in which I had the presence of mind to press for specifics, I always got variations on “I don't want to get all wrapped up in a whole thing. Just keep an eye on that.” This is worse than useless. Now, if I investigate, I'll get “why are you looking? On what basis?” If I don't, and something eventually comes to light, it'll be “the dean knew all about it and didn't do anything.” Either way, I'm wrong.

There was a time when I thought that folks who tell without telling were honestly trying to convey information, but were just worried about reprisals. I was young and naive. If there's something concrete and specific to convey, and they don't have any other agenda, they can just say it. Hell, worst case, they can leave an anonymous tip. An anonymous tip, if it contains something resembling a specific factual claim, can at least be verified. But these abstract claims are far too vague for follow-through, even if the folks who say them somehow feel cleansed by the experience.

The social dynamics of public meetings make it difficult to do the Socratic/Joe Friday interrogation that you'd need to do to give the statement any actual meaning. The smarter ones count on that.

One of my recurring fantasies involves the ability to cross-examine people on the spot. Just for my own edification, I'd like to know how much of the absurdity I'm presented with results from actual lying, as opposed to mere sloppy thinking. I've heard that it's better to deal with a knave than a fool, since a knave sometimes gets tired, but I'm not convinced. At least sloppy thinking can be clarified.

“Ah,” I can imagine a sour reader wondering, “but you tell without telling on your blog all the time.” Yes, because I don't expect the reader to do anything about it, other than comment. I'm not making any of this your responsibility. What I'm objecting to is the urgent, knowing, yet damningly vague call to action. I don't call 911 and say “I don't want to give any addresses, but there's a fire somewhere in your town. You should really look into that.”

Why do people do that?