We Don’t Always Need to Talk

“We need to talk.”

Those words inspire dread. They usually portend something unpleasant.

At home, your spouse might be angry because you forgot to take out the trash. At work, your boss might scold you for neglecting to put cover sheets on your TPS reports.

But in general, we don’t always need to talk. Sometimes, talking is counter-productive.

And that’s often the question: Will talking make things better or make things worse? Is it even needed?

The wisdom of silence

The Chinese philosopher Confucius advised that “silence is a friend who never betrays.”

Sometimes, silence isn’t an option. If we can prevent a serious wrong, then we have a duty to speak up.

At other times, the situation isn’t as clear:

  • Maybe speaking up would cause trouble but have no positive effect.
  • Maybe we’re not completely sure of the facts.
  • Maybe the problem itself is of borderline importance.
  • And maybe we’re just making excuses for ourselves because we don’t want to rock the boat.

So there’s no simple formula that tells us when to speak up and when to remain silent. We have to use our judgment.

The modern version of Confucius’s advice is that it’s better to keep our mouths shut and let people wonder if we’re fools, instead of opening our mouths and removing all doubt.

Make small talk about nothing

There are three things I didn’t learn how to do until my early 30s: juggle, whistle, and make small talk.

As a nerd, I was mystified by small talk. I thought that conversation always had to have a subject and purpose, preferably important ones. The idea of talking about nothing seemed insane.

And then one day, I was sitting on the porch at my parents’ house. My father was sitting across the table drinking a Heineken. We were talking about nothing. At times, we didn’t say anything. We just listened to the rustle of the wind in the trees, or watched the birds and the squirrels.

It suddenly dawned on me: talking wasn’t the point. The point of small talk was simply to be present with a person, to share the moment and the experience. It was “I care enough about you to spend time with you even if there’s no other purpose.” We were making small talk.

Not everything needs a purpose external to itself. Sometimes, the experience itself is the purpose. Like small talk.

Don’t shed your neighbor’s blood

The heading sounds scary, but fear not: It’s just a metaphor. It refers to a saying in the Talmud:

“Whoever shames his neighbor in public, it is as if he shed his blood.”

And the ancient rabbis were quite emphatic about it. One of them added that it would be better to engage in adultery than to shame someone in public.

Some statements are true but they humiliate people or hurt their feelings. Honesty does not require us to announce such truths publicly unless there’s a serious reason to do so.

If there isn’t, then we should refrain from “shedding the blood” of people for whom those truths are emotionally painful.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Three Ways to Understand People

If you want to understand why people believe and act as they do, three ideas will get you a long way:

People want the world to make sense

They make sense of the world in various ways, based on different assumptions and biases. They feel as if their worldview is part of who they are. If you dispute their their cherished beliefs, they feel as if you’re attacking them personally.   

Therefore, if a cherished belief has no practical impact, just leave it alone. Nobody elected you as Sheriff to correct all the mistaken beliefs in the world.

If there’s a good reason to dispute the belief, approach it calmly. Show respect for the other person. Focus only on the issue at hand. Then listen sincerely to the person’s reply. It’s not impossible that you’re the one who’s mistaken.

People want to feel important

They get their feeling of importance in various ways. Some people get it from being good parents, guiding their children and celebrating their accomplishments. Other people get it from work, religious faith, intellectual achievement, or involvement in political causes.

If people believe something because it makes them feel important, they won’t change their minds just because you made a logical argument. You must first give them a substitute way to feel important.

We’ve all got issues

Our emotions and our biology influence us a lot more than we usually realize. We are loyal to our peer groups and tend to see things through their eyes. We’ve had life experiences that biased us about certain things. Regardless of the merits, we feel warmly toward some  symbols and stories, while we feel hostile toward others.

Those flaws are part of being human. We can’t avoid having them. But we can try to be aware of how they affect us and other people. It can help us be more patient and forgiving — toward both them and ourselves.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital for living.”

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Is There a “Problem of Goodness”?

The problem of evil” has long been a thorn in the side of Judaism and Christianity. It’s a fairly simple argument:

  • Judaism and Christianity say that God is infinitely good and infinitely powerful.
  • If God is infinitely good, then He wants the world to be free of evil.
  • If God is infinitely powerful, then He can make the world free of evil.
  • But the world is not free of evil.
  • Therefore, an infinitely good and infinitely powerful God does not exist.

People have been arguing about the problem of evil for over 2,000 years. An early version appears in the Bible’s Book of Job.

The bottom line is that if you believe in God, then you can find a way to explain the existence of evil. If you don’t believe in God, then you think you’ve already got the explanation.

But what about “the problem of goodness?”

Philosopher Jonathan Garner points out that the problem of goodness is a mirror image of the problem of evil. It casts doubt on the existence of an evil God:

“The alleged ‘Problem of Good’ refers to the fact that if a good God doesn’t exist, then why is there so much pleasure, beauty, and good-will in the world? And aren’t all the good things in the world evidence that an evil god doesn’t exist?

I do think that the existence of pleasure and experience of beauty is indeed evidence against an evil god. I also think that the existence of pleasure and beauty could be some evidence for God’s existence, but we must tread carefully here.”

“Tread carefully” is good advice.

One error it’s easy to make is to think that goodness and evil are qualities like size or shape. Such qualities are aspects of the objects that have them. On that view, a good thing would have goodness in it and an evil thing would have evil. That was part of what G.E. Moore argued in his book Principia Ethica, ultimately without success.

A more defensible view is that goodness and evil are relational properties. They depend on how things affect the welfare of living beings. We apply the label “good” to things and events that help us (and other living creatures) enjoy life, achieve our goals, and fulfill our potential. We apply the label “evil” to things and events that have the opposite effect.

On that view, the mere existence of living, conscious beings that have a specific nature would logically require the existence of good and evil:

  • Living, conscious beings must act to achieve goals, even if only getting food to eat.
  • A specific nature means they would have certain needs, strengths, and weaknesses.
  • A thing or event that helped them satisfy their needs would be good, relative to them.
  • A thing or event that frustrated their needs or actively harmed them would be evil, relative to them.

It seems to me that if any universe contains living, conscious beings who must act to sustain their existence, then good and evil must also exist.

That applies whether or not God exists, and whether God is good, evil, or indifferent.

Even an infinitely good God, if He wanted to create a universe that had conscious, living beings, could not avoid the existence of evil.

That amounts to rejecting premise 3 of the problem of evil’s argument. Either:

  • God might be infinitely powerful, but even infinite power is not unlimited in every direction. Some laws of logic are so fundamental that not even God can violate them; or
  • God really can do anything at all, but since our minds operate by the laws of logic, we can’t understand it if He does. As a result, we shouldn’t expect it to make sense to us. Maimonides held something like that view in his Guide for the Perplexed.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital for living.”

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Learn How to Trust People

You can trust people. Honest. That’s not a joke. Trust me.

But it’s important to know what trust is. Then you can trust people in the right way.

A couple of analogies might help explain the point.

Suppose that you see a big rock on the grass in front of you. Based on your previous experience, you know at least two more things about it. First, if you drop it on your foot, it will hurt. Second, the rock won’t jump up by itself and hit you in the head. You can predict what it will and won’t do. In that sense, you can trust it — to be a rock.

Of course, it’s possible that your trust is mistaken. The rock might only look like a rock, but in fact be a camouflaged drone that’s programmed to jump up and hit you in the head. However, such possibilities are too remote to be worth considering. If you see a rock, you know beyond a reasonable doubt what to expect from it.

Or suppose you encounter an unfamiliar dog that growls at you, bares its teeth, and takes an aggressive posture. It might only be playing: dogs at times do that. One of our family’s dogs likes to play tug of war with a toy rope, and it growls as it plays.

But with an unfamiliar dog, the situation is different. You know much less about the dog. If you assume the dog is hostile when it isn’t, you miss a chance to play with the dog. If you assume it’s friendly when it isn’t, you might be seriously injured. As a result, the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt” has changed. The potential benefit is much less than the potential harm. You know beyond a reasonable doubt that the dog is hostile. You avoid it. You trust it to be just what it appears to be.

In both cases, you made predictions about how the rock or the dog would behave. You could make those predictions because you understood things about them. The more you understand, the more accurately you can predict.

Now, think about people. Trusting people depends on understanding them. If you understand them, you can predict how they will act. Your predictions won’t always be right, but they don’t need to be infallible. They only need to be good enough for the situation and the stakes involved. The principle is this:

You can trust people to be exactly what they are, and to act accordingly.

Exactly how you trust them, and how much, depends on the situation.

When the stakes are high, then you need to know a lot about people before you can reasonably trust them. When the stakes are lower, then you don’t need to know as much. But the more you know, the more trust you can have.

Suppose you’ve known someone for a long time and he’s almost always late. In that case, you should not trust him to be on time. Even if he intends to be on time, promises to be on time, and does his best to be on time, there’s something about him that usually makes him late. That factor doesn’t change just because he promised and has good intentions. You should be ready just in case he actually is on time for once, but you should expect him to be late and try not to get annoyed about it.

When people disappoint your trust, it’s because you failed to understand them, their motivations, or the situation. If you understood those things, then you could predict what the people would do. And you could trust them to do it.

Bottom line: People are what they are, and they act accordingly.

If you expect otherwise, you’re being unfair both to them and to yourself.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. One Amazon reviewer said: “Using a dash of humor and an accessible style of writing, this book will delight fans of books like Yuval Harari’s Sapiens. Highly Recommended.”

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Remain Calm, Even If All Isn’t Well

It’s easy to remain calm when everything is going well. But it’s more important to remain calm when everything isn’t going so well.

One way I’m lucky is that I have friends and family members who disagree with me about important issues. It makes me take a second look at my beliefs. It helps me see outside my own worldview to identify what I know for sure, what is less sure, and what is just a matter of subjective interpretation.

Most important, it inoculates me against the delusion that mine is the only possible way to see the world.

But none of that could happen without calm, rational discussion. And calm, rational discussion isn’t possible in an atmosphere of screaming, hatred, and mutual vilification.

Discussion is easiest among people who have a lot in common. They make the same basic assumptions. They make the same kinds of arguments. For biological as well as cultural reasons, they tend to trust each other’s good intentions.

Every major difference between social groups can hinder such discussion and is a potential source of conflict.

For example, when I was once between jobs in Washington DC, I worked as a contractor in Amtrak’s IT (information technology) Department. The U.S. government founded Amtrak in 1971 to provide subsidized train service. The “Am” is for “American,” so almost everyone else who worked in the IT Department was from India.

Our communication problems were minor but illuminating:

  • I learned that when someone shook his head horizontally, it meant the opposite of what I expected: instead of “no,” it meant “yes.”
  • It took me a week to figure out that when one of the project managers said “jeddo,” he meant “zero.”
  • And when I commented in a meeting that someone was “preaching to the choir,” nobody knew what I meant. It was an American idiom they hadn’t learned in school. Fortunately, everyone remained calm. I explained it, and we got on with our work.

But think about it. Those disconnects were trivial and obvious. What about more important disconnects that are difficult to spot? They might be basic assumptions about life, goodness, truth, or human nature. Before people even understand what they’re arguing about, they often start shooting at each other.

Sadly, a minority of people are so full of anger and aggression that they can’t see the world clearly and they don’t want to. It’s not so much that they’re absolutely convinced of their own righteousness — although they are. Mainly, they’ll latch onto any paper-thin excuse to oppress, harm, or humiliate other people. I wish it weren’t so, but it is.

Happily, most people aren’t like that. They can resolve social disputes peacefully and with relative good will on all sides. But staying calm — and therefore rational — is the essential first step.

After my original parents broke up, my mother at one point dated a Mafia don who gave me some good advice. It sounded like Machiavelli by way of Al Capone:

“Always be nice,” he said, “until it’s time not to be nice.”

Even in the Mafia, it’s better to resolve things calmly and reasonably whenever possible. If they can do it, we can do it.

Remain calm, especially if all isn’t well.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital for living.”

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Have Happy Relationships in 2019

Human beings are social animals. To be our best selves, we need other people.

But those relationships demand work, patience, and understanding.

How can you make your relationships as happy as possible in 2019?

Think about three things: You, the other person, and the relationship itself.

You

The philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) observed that “most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

If it’s raining, at least it’s not cold. If it’s cold, at least you have a warm home. And if you’re alive, you almost always have a chance to make tomorrow better than today.

You often can’t control external events in the world. But you can control your attitude toward them.

With very few exceptions, you can choose to be happy. You can focus on the good instead of the bad.

By all means, deal with the bad; but don’t let it define you, your life, or your relationships.

Instead, you take control and define them yourself. You have that power.

The other person

In the first flush of love (or even just friendship), it’s easy to idealize the other person. And that’s fine, as long as you season it with a dash of realism.

Even if you’re both wonderful people, you’ll sometimes have conflicting priorities. You’ll sometimes annoy each other. You’ll sometimes say things you don’t mean and later regret.

Accept the other person as a real human being, who has flaws and sometimes makes mistakes.

Learn to work around the flaws and forgive the mistakes.

And don’t mind-read. You don’t know what the other person’s private thoughts are. If you need to know, ask. But don’t stew in anger over what you believe without evidence.

The relationship

The only relationships with no problems are the trivial ones. The reason they have no problems is that we don’t care  much if they work out or not.

Our most important relationships have problems precisely because we care about them so much. They can bring us joy but they can also wound us.

Happy relationships aren’t problem-free: they’ve just learned to accept and resolve their problems.

In October 1730, American Founder Benjamin Franklin published some “Rules for Marriage” that apply to relationships generally. Paraphrased:

  • The best way to have a good friend or good spouse is to be one yourself.
  • Don’t try to manipulate people. Treat them with respect.
  • Don’t expect trouble-free happiness — “nor promise yourself felicity without alloy, for that’s impossible.”
  • “Resolve every morning to be good-natured and cheerful that day.”
  • “Deny yourself the trivial satisfaction of having your own way” if it’s going to cause a big argument. Relationships involve give and take. Sometimes you take, and other times you give.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it ” a thoughtful consideration of torrid intellectual disputes.”

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Create a Better Life in 2019

Want to create a better life in 2019?

In “Emily’s Five Things,” a Taiwanese television series, Emily finds a bottle at the beach. It contains a paper with an enigmatic message:

  • Be Yourself
  • Reconcile
  • Bid Farewell
  • Go Home
  • Rewind

The letter also warns that if she doesn’t do those things, she’ll die. After having a nightmare later that night, she starts to believe it.

Sure, it’s kind of a hokey setup, but it’s got a couple of good lessons to teach.

Emily starts to ponder the message. How is she not “being herself” — i.e., true to her own deepest convictions? With whom does she need to reconcile, and to what should she bid farewell? Where’s home? And how on earth should she “rewind?”

As she tries to discern the meaning, Emily starts to make connections and get insights. She realizes things about her life that, at some level, she already knew.

That’s one of the ways to be creative. If looking at things in the usual way isn’t getting you where you want to go, then look at them in a different way.

The messages in the bottle all seem meaningful. But that can mask how the trick really works.

You know many things without knowing that you know them. The philosopher Michael Polanyi called it “tacit knowledge.”

If you try to reach that tacit knowledge through your mind’s front door, you often can’t do it. Using the front door is the way you normally think. You need to find a side door.

Psychotherapists sometimes use a variation on the technique. If a patient doesn’t know how he or she feels about something, a therapist might ask, “Well, if you did know, what would you say?”

In Emily’s case, it’s not the specific messages that matter. What matters is that the messages make her think about her life in new ways. She finds the side door that leads to her tacit knowledge.

That’s one way that the Bible and other sacred documents work. Believers are sure that the text contains the answers to their questions. So they think about the text until they find the answers that they needed.

Sometimes, the answers are there in the text. But just as often, the answers are in the believers themselves — hidden in their tacit knowledge. The text just provided the side door to find it.

But as side doors go, Emily’s Five Things are a good place to start: Be yourself, reconcile, bid farewell, go home, and rewind.

How do those ideas apply to you? And how can you put them to work in 2019?

It’s your life, so you’re the only one who knows. Even if you don’t know you know.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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