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From Friday’s Daily Telegraph: Rafael Benitez may have felt better for his outburst, but politeness fulfils a social function
There is something rare and refreshing about hearing someone say what they think, rather than what they think they should say. Rafael Benitez did it this week. The interim manager of Chelsea Football Club (at the time of writing) finally lost patience with those among the club’s fans who basically hate him and want him to be sacked.
For months, they have been barracking him with banners and chants – “Rafa out!” – and he has been couching his weariness in euphemisms: yes, I understand the fans’ frustration; no, it doesn’t bother me. But on Wednesday night, after a routine win in the FA Cup at Middlesbrough, he sort of snapped: not in a picking up the press-room chairs and hurling them at the sports correspondents way, but in a more understated “OK, here’s what I actually think of the whining little fools in the stands and my insulting six-month contract and this whole shoddy, boring, relentless charade. Fire me if you want. I no longer care if you people understand what I’m saying, I’m just saying it” way.
In our media-trained, PR-savvy world, this is unusual, so we remember the times it happens. John Major was caught on microphone describing three of his own Cabinet ministers as “bastards”. More recently, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, when asked whether Mitt Romney would be touring New Jersey in the wake of Tropical Storm Sandy, retorted: “I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested… If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics then you don’t know me.”
It’s always fun to watch. It feels as though someone has broken out of the shackles of social nicety and finally spoken their mind. But, as entertaining as it is, it’s not actually helpful, assuming that you want to convince the people you’re talking to. “Saying what you really think” is rarely a useful way of getting someone to think the same thing.
We don’t tend to think about how we communicate that much. It’s just something we do, like digesting proteins; all seemingly mundane stuff like “What time do you need that by?” and “No thanks, just the burger will be fine”. We don’t think, often, of what a miracle of engineering human speech is. The brain is the most complex machine in the known universe. But for it to communicate with any other brains, its only option is to make a sort of modulated hooting noise, a single stream of data broken into word-shaped lumps, at a rate of a few bytes a second. It’s like making a bunch of supercomputers and asking them to network over Victorian telegraph wires using Morse code. It’s remarkable that it works as well as it does.
The reason it works is because, usually, the two brains are constantly seeking to understand each other, looking for clues from gestures, expressions, surroundings; it’s why we can often make sense of statements like “It’s the thing… with the… you know.” What’s more, it happens in a very subtle way: human social relationships are incredibly fraught. It’s why we don’t say “Pass me the salt”, but instead ask nonsensical but related things, such as “Would you mind passing me the salt?” (“No, I wouldn’t. Why?”) so that the salt‑holder doesn’t feel slighted. When the two brains are cooperating, a remarkable amount of information can be transmitted, and social relationships maintained. Human communication is collaboration, a joint attempt to complete a jigsaw puzzle, not a game of chess.
But when one party doesn’t want to understand the other, it’s different. Suddenly the game of understanding is broken. When one party is actively trying to misunderstand the other, being antagonistic rather than cooperative, it becomes about forcing the other to understand. That’s why we have legal documents: all that “The term ‘you’ refers to the reader” stuff is an effort to avoid any possible ambiguities or misunderstandings.
“Saying what you’re really thinking” usually means no longer caring about how the other party responds, about dropping the niceties that keep communication cooperative. Yes, it’s refreshing, for speaker and listener; it feels like a release. But it’s counterproductive. Tell someone “Pass the salt” and they are less likely to do so than if you inanely waffle “It would be amazing if you could pass the salt”. Saying “You’re an idiot and we’re doing the project my way” is less likely to result in the project happening at all than “That’s a great idea, but how about we try it like this?”
Of course, for poor old Rafa, the time for politeness may be over. They hate him, he hates them, so why not say it? But it is not a life lesson for the rest of us. He will probably be fired; John Major split the Tories even further down Euro-lines with his “bastards” comment; Christie is persona non grata among American conservatives. “Letting your real feelings out”, whatever the self-help gurus say, helps nobody, least of all yourself. If you want to get ahead in life, learn to say what you’re not really thinking. People will understand you better.