In the early 1950s, the Marketing Director of a giant Chicago-based chewing-gum business was asked by me what the reason was for what I thought was a particularly crass decision. We were both young men. He was the client. He viewed it as a slightly impertinent question. His answer was revealing. “Reason?” he said, “Reason? Hell there is no reason; it’s just company policy.” A beautifully unreasonable answer which I have used many times in my life. But totally unreasonable – and it didn’t benefit his business by one dollar.
Brexit was unreasonable, at least in the medium term. But it happened. Trump’s pre-election statements were unreasonable. But he got elected President. Events in Aleppo are unreasonable as well as tragic. But neither side will concede. Negotiation skills involve learning how to be unreasonable. Most of the conflicts in the world are unreasonable.
However, our civilisation, the developments we have achieved, technological and otherwise, are based on reason. We try to educate our young to be reasonable. Behaviour towards our fellow human beings is judged on how reasonable it is. If you are unreasonable enough you end up in prison. So reason dominates what we do most of the time. But not all the time.
The world has become technologically more reasonable but socially less reasonable in the last twenty years. Society outside the laboratory has deteriorated in its ability to create an environment where reason is at the root of what we do and excess feelings are kept under control. Disinformation (lies) are part of a society which the media describe as “Post truth”. Post truth? Post trust is the inevitable consequence of that. Is that how we want to live?
What should we do about it?
As with all situations we need to understand where the boundary markers are. Think of handling high-voltage electric wires. You must know exactly which of them you can handle without special gloves and which you can’t. Some will be totally harmless. Others will be fatal is they come into contact with our skin. One slip and you will be dead.
It is rather the same with reasonableness. In situations where hyperbole, exaggeration and colourful stories are understood to be allegorical you can “touch the wires”. Where there is ambiguity and possible misunderstanding, you need to be careful. People who don’t speak your language won’t comprehend your idioms or humour.
When we get to matters that affect our lives directly and personally we need a special awareness if we are to avoid damage. Relations between spouses inevitably get strained now and then, sometimes with cause, sometimes without. It is important that the boundaries are clear at times like these. Sarcasm, over-statement and misplaced humour are the live wires of these situations. Handle with gloves.
Since much of our time is now spent either negotiating or working out how to handle contradictory regulations we have to re-assess the terms and conditions of our communications all the time. If our judgment is right we will know how important truth is in each situation we handle. Truth is bona fide intention.
With good judgment and good faith we can deploy our communication skills to produce good results.
But we must acknowledge that the three “good” go together.