How You Say It > What You Say

It’s date night. You’ve been wanting to try the new spot. It’s crowded. The reward for a wait would be a cozy table pressed against your neighboring diners. Hmm. Nothing is more grating on the ears than the courtship ritual of hipsters on a date whose evening insurance policy is just a right-swipe away. Makes for feckless banter.

But you’re both feeling good. Showered. About as groomed as you’ll be on a weekend. The kids are watching iPad at home, grandma’s on sentry duty. The radio dealt Billie Jean on the way over. So you play it cool. Take the seats at the bar. Your cocktails arrive in front of you. Pause to cheers and snap an “ussie”. In the time it takes to upload it to the ‘Gram, Google settles your question — Elvis sold more records than MJ.

Phones down, back to one another. You’re discussing “who is the real king of pop”. Units-sold is just one aspect and you aren’t the types to waste time arguing facts so you deferred to the internet. More back and forth. You’re sparring with pads on. Exchanging taps. “Good point”. “True”. It’s a dance of its own. If only the hipsters could hear you. I imagine they’d cringe like a psychiatrist hearing the words “life coach”. Nevertheless, the playful dispute stays smooth until Kris responds, “Actually…”

End scene right there.

Here’s a happiness hack for you:

Read the damn room.

This date night debate is for zero stakes. It’s not about truth. It’s not the setting for a Juilliard-level surgery of pop music psychohistory. There’s nothing to gain from appealing to expertise. To invite the feeling of resignation that says every matter is already solved. How many fights could have been avoided if this moment were re-imagined? Why should the verbal monopolize the focus? There are so many other stimuli serving the moment. It’s a tyranny of intellect that the words are mistaken for the real communication that was going down.

If you can read between the lines, you’d know that I blew up a date-night by being a jerk. I was dense. Now I’ve been married too long to have done this obstinately. I hope I don’t have an insecure need to be “right”. I’m quite aware there’s a broad plane across which reasonable people can disagree. This was second level stuff.

This was about subtlety in the way I made her feel during a benign disagreement (it wasn’t about Elvis). If you are actively trying to be agreeable but come off condescending you might be mansplaining. Even if you are correct, assuming it’s a matter that has a correct, what’s the point? Reason is a slave to the passions as David Hume put it. Action springs from feeling not logic. To be effective, whatever that means in context, remember that how you say is often more important than what you say.

It’s no secret that body language and tone are tells. Non-verbal communication is an “honest” biological signal because it’s hard to fake. This week I have some fun links to help you think about how we communicate.

70% of how you look, 20% of how you sound, only 10% is what you say

  • Check out Eddie Izzard from one of my favorite all-time comedy specials Dress to Kill (Link; start at 2:20)

The Scariest Accent

  • Another from a favorite comedy skit. Trevor Noah breaks down the scariest accent. He makes a clever insight on how we perceive a foreign language vs a foreign accent. (Link)

How Not To Sound Like An Evil Robot

  • I can be so guilty of this. A short and funny guide to word choice by Slatestar. (Link)

Ecological Rationality 

  • Ecological rationality is defined as knowing which heuristic works in which environment.  Professor Kahneman is rightly lauded for being the father of behavioral psychology. It’s a field that points out all the failure modes and blind spots in our shortcut thinking. You’d think the field was settled given how large Kahneman looms. But the work of Gerd Gigerenzer says otherwise, redeeming our so-called biases in real-world settings. His disagreements with Kahneman are often quite technical and therefore less polarizing than some would like to portray. I most like how it exposes a false paradigm where rationality is pitted against mental heuristics.

Many smart, successful people fail in rationality tests inside a lab because rationality is defined rather narrowly. It’s logical rationality – about not violating some law of logic or probability. But, outside the lab, in the real-world, we cannot do well with just with logical rationality, we need ecological rationality – the kind of thinking that helps us get what we want in an environment that’s uncertain and dynamic. (Link)


  • The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. — George Bernard Shaw
  • Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance. — Sam Brown

Podcast Episodes

  • One of my top 10 podcast episodes ever is Patrick O’Shaughnessy interviewing Eric Maddox, the US interrogator in Iraq whose work led us to Saddam. Must listen. (Link)

This week we explore a rare and underappreciated skill through the lens of an incredible story. My guest is Eric Maddox, whose name you probably don’t know but won’t soon forget. Just trust me that you need to listen to this entire episode, and listen carefully—because that is what the episode is ultimately all about: how to listen to others, with care and empathy, in the age of distraction.

  • How To Improve Your Speaking Voice. World-renowned voice coach Roger Love goes on Art of Manliness (Link)

Roger explains why having a clear, confident, pleasant speaking voice is important for success in your career and your life, the biggest ways people sabotage their voice, including voice fry, uptalk, and being nasally, and how these issues can be addressed and eliminated. Roger also shares how to speak in a more masculine way, and why you’re probably not speaking loudly enough. 


  • Why singing and speaking are basically the same
  • Why the voice you have is not necessarily the voice you were born with
  • The reason so many people dislike hearing their own voice
  • The most common vocal bad habits
  • The rise of uptalk (valley talk), and how it’s different from going up in melody
  • What role does anatomy play in our speaking voice?
  • Why men try to artificially lower their voice, and the physical risks of doing so
  • Brass tacks tips for improving your voice
  • What is voice fry? Why are people doing it?
  • How to avoid sounding angry
  • Why people almost always speak quieter than they should
  • Why you mumble and how to fix it
  • Why your voice is more important than your words

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