If you’ve watched enough movies or TV shows that depict gambling or spying, you’ll know what a “tell” is. The poker player nervously fiddles with his wedding ring when he’s bluffing. The undercover agent begins to sweat when he suspects that the bad guys are “onto him”. The con man hems and haws when asked a direct question that he ought not answer directly. These are the kinds of ways that a person might unwittingly “tell” you that he’s not sincere.
These are all active examples—things that can be witnessed and measured in one way or another and used to determine whether a person is lying. But there’s another kind of “tell” that a skilled observer can use to tell when you don’t care. And if you’re like most folks, you give yourself away without even realizing it. Before I tell you the trick, however, and to set up the conversation so that it’ll make more sense, let’s explore some of the more common ways that things are detected.
Movement Against a Still Background
Most experienced hunters will tell you that the first thing that catches the hunter’s eye is movement. The deer is seen walking through the woods because it’s the only thing moving. Even though its coat serves well as camouflage when it’s still, all bets are off when it’s moving. This same principle is at work when a security guard watches a building that is supposed to be vacant.
Many folks will pipe up in dissent if you throw out a statement with which they adamantly disagree, or a statement that they find personally offensive. As the old saying goes, “When you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, it’s the hit dog that yelps!”
Caught In a Lie
The liar or imposter can be exposed by finding holes in his story. One classic example of this is the book dropped on the bare floor behind the witness who claims to be deaf. When the witness jumps at the sound, his lie is obvious.
These are some of the ways that people get caught revealing things they wished not to reveal. But this is not how you catch someone who doesn’t care. No, those folks are revealed in a different way, and once you learn to recognize it, you’ll realize that our society is filled with uncaring and apathetic people. So let’s look at some facts about the nature of things.
If you hold up an acoustic guitar and sing into its sound hole one of the 6 notes to which the strings are tuned, the string whose note you sing will sing back! This phenomenon is called sympathetic resonance. (Read about it at Wikipedia.) Since each string is tuned to a certain primary frequency, it gets excited when the air around it is already vibrating at that same frequency.
People exhibit quite a similar behavior as guitar strings when they hear other people expressing ideas or see them exhibiting behavior with which they are already “in tune”. When the football player scores a touchdown, the sympathetic fan will often exhibit some nearly-involuntary response, such as yelling “Yes!” or raising his hands in jubilation. Similarly, when a parent sees his beloved child performing well in a recital, he may be jubilant, or it may even evoke tears of appreciation. Or when a preacher makes a compelling point, many in the sympathetic audience may shout, “Amen!”
But what does it mean when such responses are absent? What does that “tell” us? It normally indicates either disagreement, disinterest, dysfunction, or distraction. Imagine singing a G to the G string on the guitar when that string has been accidentally tuned to an A instead, or imagine the D string failing to ring because you accidentally place a finger on it as you hold the guitar, dampening its ability to ring. Similarly, imagine trying to get a football fan to cheer along with you when his dog has just died, or trying to persuade the video game addict who hates children to come to your kid’s music recital. In none of these cases should we expect to find “sympathetic resonance”.
This is how I can tell when you don’t care about a topic.
When you say nothing at all
In the popular Allison Krauss song, a lover is told, “you say it best when you say nothing at all”. Of course, that song is about saying “I love you”, and it talks about how a smile can sometimes say things even better than words can. All the smiling and other non-verbal communication aside, though, I have in mind a bit of a twist on these lyrics with the idea that one best says he doesn’t care when he “says nothing at all”.
I discuss various matters with people as a regular habit, and I’m always learning by how they respond to various things. I often “float” an idea to gauge that person’s interest in the topic. For instance, in a discussion about religion, I might toss out a statement in passing that I know disagrees with their beliefs just to see whether they’ll pick up on it and comment on it. For example, in a discussion about people’s carelessness about the details of religious doctrine, I might mention in passing that the passage “we are Christ’s ambassadors” was never meant to be a statement representing all believers, but only the apostles. Knowing full well that practically every church teaches its members that they are “Christ’s ambassadors”, I naturally expect a new vein of discussion to follow this assertion. More often than not, however, I get no response whatsoever.
Like a boulder in a river
Do you remember how the movement of the deer gives away its position? It stands out as it moves across an unmoving background. The boulder in the river current is exactly the opposite. Because of its great mass (and inertia), it is unmoved by the current around it. Boulders in a river are easy to spot even at a great distance, not only because they are still as the current swirls around them, but also because they tend create a wake in the current stream—the faster the current, the greater the wake. They are as easy to spot as a seated person in an audience that is celebrating a performance with a standing ovation. In a conversation that reveals the truth of certain matters, a person who is unmoved by the facts shows a great inertia, just like that boulder. This shows that he is probably not on a general course of seeking and applying the truth regularly—regardless of whether he thinks he is or not. The greater the force of the point being made in the conversation, the greater the inertia (or resistance) of the listen must be to ignore the point being made.
“I have no response to that.”
In the exceptionally mediocre movie, Joe Versus the Volcano, Joe tells his boss’ daughter Angelica that before he worked for her father, he was an advertising librarian for a medical company. Her reply to this unexciting information is, “I have no response to that.” Later, however, he makes an impassioned plea to her in hopes of having a romantic relationship, only to get the same response:
- Joe: Look. I don’t know you. I don’t think I know anybody. You’re angry, I can, I can see that. I’m very troubled. I’m not ready to… [sighs] There’s only so much time. You wanna use it well. So I’m here, talking to you. I don’t wanna throw that away.
- Angelica: I have no response to that.
What is absurd about this, of course, is that saying “I have no response to that” is itself a response—sort of. Rarely do people say such things, although you might hear “I don’t know what to say” from time to time. A great many people, I have observed, simply choose to say nothing at all. Instead of a mature and meaningful response, what you get is this:
Now I don’t mean to suggest that all people should care about all things, but merely that mature people should care about important things. So when you call our system of government a “democracy” and I inform you that it was actually designed to be a constitutional republic but has now been usurped and turned into a mercantilist oligarchy—well, I’d expect a response to that. At least a “hmmm” to let me know you’re still alive on the other end of this conversation.
Or when I tell you that the reason you have heart disease, cancer, diabetes, sexual dysfunction, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, or difficulty focusing your thoughts is because of the toxins in the foods and products you use, I would think that a naturally-concerned response would be at least a “really?” or an “I’ll have to look into that” or a “tell me more”. Similarly, you tell me that our government has really been off track since about 1913 and that we really need to “get back to the Constitution” and I point out that the Constitution was subverted in the very First Congress of the United States…and that about 95% of what goes on here is unconstitutional…and how we might as well start over from scratch as to try to reform ourselves incrementally to a system that had some flaws from the beginning—-well, an “I’ll have to give that some thought” would be a nice and fitting response.
What I normally get in response to things like these, however, are crickets. And what does this tell me? It tells me that getting down to the facts of a matter is simply not an important pursuit for you—that you don’t care much about it.
I recently posted a meme on Facebook as an experiment on this very topic. It said something like: “If you think that disunity in the church is a serious problem, please share this and see who agrees with you.” As I recall, I got one “share” and one “like” and nothing else–not even a comment. So what does this tend to tell me about my Facebook friends who happened to see it? Well, I have to be a little careful here, but the suggestion seems to be somewhere in the ballpark of them not finding it to be a compelling issue. Right?
Now, I’d be very surprised if any of my Facebook friends ever wrote, “I don’t think that unity in the church is an important topic”, or “I don’t care about this”. This is certainly not the way they think of themselves. But what kind of people are we in reality? Is it not still true that “actions speak louder than words”? And doesn’t inaction say just as much? No matter what you might think about your own beliefs and values, therefore, the reality of who you are is in your action and inaction.
So when you try to blow off an important issue until “later” and I ask you why correcting an obvious error is not a task for now, your silence tells me a great deal about your true paradigms. When I pose 5 questions in challenge to your assertions and you only answer two of them, saying not a word about the other three, you’ve told me more than words could say about the way you think. When you say in response to a correction, “I’ll keep that in mind for future articles” but you don’t go back and correct the very article to which I am replying, you might as well have screamed “I DON’T CARE!”, even though your words are intended to give the impression that you do.
By viewing not only one’s words, but his actions (and inaction) also, I observe that a great many people are not in reality who they believe themselves to be. Oftentimes, a person thinks of himself as the teacher, even though he doesn’t really know much and doesn’t show a teacher’s concern for getting the facts straight. And sometimes a person responds graciously to a criticism because he knows an audience is watching, and not because he has a sincere love of truth and self correction. And to address the opposite side of this same coin, sometimes people don’t respond to an important assertion because they are afraid of what their friends might think if they did respond.
Each of these cases is similar in one way or another to our guitar string examples. One’s sympathetic resonance is dampened by the fear or influence of others. Another is tuned to the wrong pitch so he doesn’t “get it” when an assertion is made in agreement with the pitch to which he claims to be tuned. Consider, for example, the Demublican who says, “Those damnable Republicrats are violating the Constitution with these anti gun laws”. I point out that the Demublican Party is also violating the Constitution with its beloved Patriot Act (or any of 100 more similar examples). A failure to respond here shows that this person is not truly tuned to the “obey the Constitution” pitch, even though he thinks he is.
Similarly, someone may boast that he is a Christian—-that he is “in tune” with the teachings of Jesus. In a debate, some matter of fact—of truth—arises and this person shows no compunction to stop and deal with it. So I point out that since truth is a fundamental tenet of the Christian religion, this matter ought to become a priority. I even post a number of verses showing various Christian teachings about truth, but I get no response. Something here is also out of tune.
A great many people seem to be like this, and in many ways. It’s funny how people can write some principle or other on a sticky label and stick it to their foreheads but stray from that principle over time while still wearing and boasting about the label. They’ll say, “I’m a Christian” or “I support the Constitution” or “I try to be a good person”, but their behavior may not long reflect such a declaration and before you know it, they are failing to care about the very principles by which they have voluntarily and enthusiastically labeled themselves. I note that this happens more often than not when a group or institution is involved. Once people don the label of “member”, there is a strong temptation, however palpable it may or may not be, to value the idea of being a member more than the idea of embracing and practicing the paradigms in honor of which the institution was supposed to have been founded. A great many people will spend their lives in such groups and never even realize the irony that surrounds this sort of paradigm-creep. Because of this phenomenon, and in the most general of terms, the more one thinks and aspires toward excellence, the less suited he is as a “member”.
In one of the Star Trek movies, the android, Lt. Commander Data relates what makes him different from an identical android created by the same man. He says, “I aspire to be better than I am.” How sad it is that in the ordinary course of life, we are all presented with various ways to improve ourselves every day, and yet so few seem to seize the opportunity. So few seem to care.
Life is short. Why not do something extraordinary while we are here? And why not be something extraordinary while we are here?