Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
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It’s a miracle my wife ever ended up marrying me. Her first experience with my family was at best awkward. Despite the fact that my mom, dad, and I trotted out our “company” behavior that evening, our attempts at refinement apparently didn’t work. At the end of the meal, Louise asked, “Why were you guys so mad at each other?”
“What makes you think we were angry?” I queried.
“You were arguing the whole evening,” she explained.
“That wasn’t arguing. That’s how we normally discuss matters,” I responded.
“You guys quarreled for five full minutes over whether or not lemmings actually follow each other off a cliff like a bunch of, well, lemmings.”
“They don’t,” I quickly explained. “What kind of genetic advantage is there in mass suicide?”
Louise looked at me in a way that said she was having second thoughts about dating me.
“Surely you don’t buy into the legend that lemmings . . .” I interjected, and Louise’s look of disappointment only grew more pronounced.
Over the years, Louise and I have become better at handling differences of opinion. As you might suspect, we have carefully worked on our conversation skills and that has helped some, but I have to admit that one of the chief contributors to my most recent improvements has been due to, of all things, the advent of search engines. We still debate things, but we now talk about topics of more substance. We’ll argue about whether a new public policy will result in a public benefit, or we’ll even ponder the meaning of life, but we no longer argue about silly things such as Lemmings. The internet now intervenes in all of our debates of fact.
For example, last night we were watching a TV replay of the movie Father of the Bride. When we first see the beautiful home the bride’s family lives in, we argue over where the home is located. Clearly it’s California. That’s easy; but northern or southern? And the debate is on. Only nowadays, the debate doesn’t run very long. My son-in-law, who is watching along with us, jumps to the computer, clicks on a search engine and types in “Father of the Bride House.” A Web site with that very name comes up, he clicks on it, and then shouts, “It’s located at 843 S. El Molino Ave, Pasadena. Do you want to see the map that shows how to get there?”
“Told you it was southern California.” my daughter chimes in.
Moments later my seven-year-old granddaughter walks into the room and reminds her mom that she has to start reading a new book—a nonfiction.
“I have one,” my daughter exclaims as she pulls the book off the side table.
“Let’s see if the book is age appropriate,” I say as I pluck the suspicious manuscript from her hand and open it to the first page of text. As I’m reading from the book, I bark, “Ennui!” Actually, I spit the word out as if it were a piece of raw liver. “This book contains the word ‘ennui.’ What kind of kid knows what ennui is?”
“What is ennui?” my granddaughter asks.
I explain: “It’s kind of a bad, well you know, it’s a French word made of two parts—first the ‘on’ and then the ‘wee.’ Even though the word looks like ‘en-you-eye,’ it’s a trick. It’s actually pronounced ‘on-wee.’ Anyway, ennui is a bad sort of feeling. It’s a French-like bad feeling.”
“Yes,” my oldest son chimes in. “It means you’re in a bad mood or out of sorts.”
“That’s ‘ornery,’” my wife corrects him.
“A feeling of utter boredom,” my daughter reads from the computer screen. This time she merely had hit F12 and a pre-loaded dictionary window came up. “The word is pronounced ‘ahn-wee’ and means utter boredom.”
“I forgot what we’re talking about,” my wife says.
“I was wondering what kind of non-fiction books kids would read and whether or not this one was age appropriate.”
“Look at this,” my daughter interjects. “Here’s a Web site that displays the last fifteen years of nonfiction children’s book award winners.” Now we’re all standing around the computer looking at wonderful nonfiction books we had no idea existed. After three more clicks, we order two.
And so it goes in the Patterson household. Thousands of years of science, art, literature, and daily civilization lay before us, and this massive output is actually starting to find its way into our daily conversation. Equally important, armed with more data than ever before, we tend not to argue the facts; instead we discuss bigger issues. For instance, stimulated by one of my latest Web searches, I discussed with my grandkids how such legends as “lemmings commit suicide” are created in the first place. That conversation is far more interesting and enlightening than the traditional “No they don’t jump off cliffs!” “Yes they do!” battle that went on for decades.
The world is changing—and in this case for the better. We can now be a more careful, scientific, and fact-based people—without all that much effort (which suits us just fine). Whether at work or home, we can enter a discussion with most of the facts we need at hand. And if we find ourselves arguing the facts, we can stop mid-discussion and seek data. Instead of calling the meeting to a halt, we can find the information we need in only a few seconds.
It’s hard to imagine where this amazing portal is going to take us. One thing’s for sure: people who set their home computer near their easy chair and an office computer in meeting rooms will step to the portal more rapidly than those who have to drive to a library or walk downstairs or back to their office in order to conduct a data search. I’m sure we’ll overcome this problem as well. The day will come when people who now walk around with a tiny phone riding atop their ear will have the entire internet riding there. Perhaps they’ll embed a search engine under a flap of skin, much like a pacemaker and then Wi-Fi it to a tiny speaker buried behind an ear.
One day you’ll be sitting at the boarding gate waiting to climb on a plane and you’ll hear from the person seated next to you, “Search, lemming.” (Pause) “Next.” (Pause) “Next.” (Pause) “Play lemming legends.” Then the stranger will sit there and hear the paragraphs explaining how lemmings flee to find more space and sometimes even jump into the water to swim to a nearby island.
People who once rode atop camels for days on end to arrive at the Great Library of Alexandria would surely look on with awe should they see us use a search engine. They’d probably wonder why we use this grand tool to find the address of a house we see on TV or to read about the social patterns of a rodent, but it doesn’t matter how we use the tool, only that we use it. Imagine working in a company where people stop pooling ignorance and start jumping out of an argument and onto the Web where they can find legitimate sources of scientific evidence. Imagine living in a family where people pause briefly to check their facts before they launch into a silly argument. My first at-home date with Louise certainly could have used such help.