How much better would your life be if you had an army of Nobel Laureates, MacArthur 'geniuses' and National Medal of Science winners whispering tips in your ear about your body language, or how to resist that impulse purchase you'll regret tomorrow, or when to sell your car—or even helping you trick your spouse into doing the dishes? Read more...
- Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Gr
- Date: Mar 2012
From the book
TRANSFORM A RELATIONSHIP WITH LANGUAGE
COGNITIVE SCIENCE, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
"Imagine you've been pulled over by a police officer," says Steven Pinker, Harvard psychologist, prolific author, and one of Britannica's 100 Most Influential Scientists of All Time. In this case, you'd like to know if the relationship is adversarial or conspiratorial: in other words, you'd like to know if you can bribe the cop. But you can't just come out and say it. "Instead, you start by talking about the weather," says Pinker, "and then you mention that it must be difficult to get by on an officer's salary." You start with extremely indirect speech and with every step become slightly more direct. "And after each step, the police officer has the opportunity to accept or rebuff the overture," says Pinker. If the police officer isn't open to being bribed, he or she should cut you off at the weather, before you've incriminated yourself.
Pinker explains this in terms of game theory, with payoffs shown here:
It's like trying to sleep with a coworker.
"The mistake of Clarence Thomas was to jump steps in this continuum," says Pinker. Thomas brought up the subject of porn videos when he should've prepped that level of directness, perhaps by, "asking Anita Hill to call him by his first name, or by adopting a less formal style of speech." Thomas went straight to the equivalent of handing the cop a fifty-dollar bill, dooming himself to a scandal and the closest Senate confirmation in a century.
So language must match the relationship. "This is what we call 'tact,' " says Pinker. And when it doesn't, it creates uncomfortable friction—it's what drives the awkward comedy in a sketch posted to YouTube in which Irish comedian Dave Allen uses the terms "buddy," "chum," "friend," and "mate" with strangers and thus comes off as tactlessly aggressive. This would be like me trying to speak Cockney rhyming slang in a London pub, or walking into a group of local surfers and saying, "Yo brahs—where you shreddin' the swell today?" Language that oversteps the bounds of a relationship is in every way the equivalent of trying to hold hands with a stranger on the subway.
But what's even cooler is this: "Not only does language reflect a relationship, but it can serve to create or change it," says Pinker. And so if you can avoid overstepping in your slow evolution of indirect to direct language with a police officer or attractive coworker, not only can you discover the nature of the relationship, but you can pull the relationship along with it.
So make a script. Start with nearly innocuous comments that are almost certain to be taken as such ("It was nice to see you in the meeting today"). Then move ever so slowly toward the midground ("Wow, that's a sexy haircut!"). Then move glacially toward the thinly veiled overture you're trying to make (Pinker writes, "Would you like to come over sometime and see my etchings?"). Done tactfully and without overstepping, this language of closeness can create closeness.
Note that this entry doesn't necessarily recommend bribing cops or sleeping with coworkers, mirroring a common ethical dilemma in science: just because you can doesn't mean you should.
EAT FOR EIGHT HOURS, LOSE WEIGHT
Satchidananda Panda REGULATORY BIOLOGY, SALK INSTITUTE
"If you overlay the CDC diabetes map with the NASA nighttime satellite map, there's an almost perfect match," says Satchin Panda, regulatory biology specialist at the Salk Institute. The more light in a region at night, the higher the incidence of diabetes. According to Panda, this is because your liver needs sleep....