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Without listeners, fact-spinners founder

December 17, 1998

Earlier this year, before my son started college, he got the opportunity to attend what the school called an "advanced planning conference." In exchange for spending a weekend undergoing placement tests, etc., months before classes actually started, he was given priority registration and a better choice of dorm rooms.

Parents were invited too, and while the incoming freshmen went to one set of programs, we went to another. Some were pretty routine, like what electrical equipment students could bring (extension cords are forbidden, while "power strips" with their own circuit breakers are allowed).

Later we got to the more interesting stuff, including computers. Now for me, going to a computer seminar is like going to a talk on brain surgery. I might know something about both when they're over, but I'm about as likely to wield a scalpel knowledgeably as I am to become a computer expert.

Nevertheless, I went and listened, first to the woman who complained that the computer the college was urging that her daughter to bring along would likely be an outmoded piece of junk in four years. The moderator chuckled and told the story of the $100 calculator he'd bought some years ago that could do nothing more than add, subtract and multiply. Defeated, she shrugged and sat down.

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The next guy wasn't so easily deterred, quizzing the moderator at length on modem speed, Internet access, megabytes and the like. At first he seemed like an overprotective father trying to make sure his little darling would have only the best equipment to work on, but he went on so long, and his tone was so snide, that his questioning began to seem like something else.

As I watched the moderator fend off his queries with an amused smile, my memory flashed back to those PBS wildlife documentaries about animals' ritual combat. Instead of using physical violence or threats to establish dominance, he was dueling with facts. And if he could only get his foe to say "I'm not sure about that," then he could snort and prance around like a buck in rutting season.

Since that day, I've been noticing examples of this behavior all around me. The newest member of a non-profit organization whose meetings I attend took his first look at its budget and began questioning whether the group's dozen or so veterans had really sharpened their pencils.

Is this the best unit price you could get on these notebooks, he said. The best, he was assured. And how about the binders? The lowest possible cost, he was told. Unable to establish that any slipshod work had taken place, he attended one more more meeting, brooding quietly, then disappeared.

On July 4, we went down to Solomon's Island to take a ride on my cousin's big boat. We were eating lunch on the stern when one of the neighboring boat owners stopped for a bit of conversation. His father had had a stroke, and he'd come down to restore the old man's boat, which hadn't been away from the dock for two years.

Cus and the man discussed boats, amicably at first, but then the fellow, who looked like Lou Costello on a bad hair day, began to assert his superior knowledge. He owned a machine shop, he said, that specialized in rebuilding boat motors, expecting this to be his trump card.

But Cuz matched him fact for fact, and the conversation zipped along, like two college rowing teams gliding along the water. Then the man announced that he was a tenured professor of engineering at the University of Maryland. Maybe it was true, but Cuz and I glanced at one another with that look that one reserves for people who claim the FBI is sending them messages through the fillings in their teeth. He'd overplayed his hand, and walked back up the dock, vaguely aware that he'd lost the competition.

I could never be that sort of person, because for one thing, facts don't stick to my brain. I survive only by maintaining voluminous files, though I sometimes forget where I've put what. Nor do I have the "now hear this" sort of personality that instantly convinces people, in the absence of other evidence, that I know what I'm talking about.

The kind of person has kids who begin sentences with "My dad says..." as in "My dad says anybody who buys a 386 computer is stupid." My children do not quote me as an authority on any subject, although I have learned a few things that might actually help them, like how to get along with professors and other authority figures.

The secret: Don't talk, except to tell them how much you like to hear them talk, and how amazing it is that they've managed to acquire all this deep knowledge. You won't win the battle of the dueling factoids, but you won't flunk out either. They may not admit it, but the fact spinners need you as much as you need them. If everybody could stockpile information as easily as they do, there wouldn't be anybody left for them to impress, and that's a fact.




Bob Maginnis is The Herald-Mail's Opinion page editor.

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