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Truth Serum

The other day I overheard a mother-daughter exchange that really made me pause. The 5-year old was hanging on a grocery cart while she stood in line with her mother, and both were extremely bored. The girl was gripping the cage of the cart, leaning back so that her long hair nearly touched the floor. Her mother told her to stop it and stand still. The girl pulled herself up and mumbled something about being “just like daddy’s wife.” Whatever she said must have struck a nerve because her mother reacted immediately. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” said the little girl.

“I think I heard you, Carolyn,” she said. “That wasn’t ‘nothing.’ Tell me the truth.”

“But mommy,” she protested, “you never let me get the truth out.”

Yikes. I wished I could have disappeared at that moment, but I was too close to the conversation. I just smiled as if I wasn’t paying attention and looked away, but I was thinking, what a zinger!

Then, in a quieter tone, the mom said, “What do you mean, I don’t let you?”

The girl responded immediately, holding out her left and right hands like she was carrying an invisible tray.  “I start to tell you, then you

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get mad, then you tell me what I was gonna say, and I say ’No, that’s not it,’ and you say ’Yes, it is!’ I don’t like getting yelled at, so I stop talking and never get to tell you the truth.”

Wow! This little gal was hard-wired for delivering killer lines. The mother ignored the last utterance, dismissively piling groceries onto the belt. Not another word was said, but her eyes were shooting daggers at the kid.

Those words, like the text bubble in a Sunday morning newspaper cartoon, stayed with me for the entire day. “You never let me get the truth out.”

Jumping The Gun

Too many people today find themselves in the same position as that intimidated little girl. They are basically saying, “Look, you have already decided what you need to hear, and no matter what I say now, you have positioned it so that it works for you and feeds your version of the story. It will take months if not years for me to reverse what you have already put out there, so it is probably best I just hush before speaking anymore about it makes it worse.”

Think of how many public apologies we have heard in the last few years since the Internet has caught every Tom, Dick, and Harry saying something they would have ordinarily not had to retract except that practically everyone is carrying a video-recording device around in their cell phone. Presidential candidates, college football players aiming to get into the pros, Hollywood stars who sometimes forget about their delicate futures when they speak; all of these characters open their mouths and we, the mass-media consumers, fill in the blanks. We further embellish the statements. They become fodder for late-night TV hosts and part of a “teaser” for the Internet-addicted. We live in a world of sound bites and “gotcha” moments instead of ever having the full story. It’s like an episode of an old 1970s sitcom in which the entire conflict could be solved if only one detail was revealed, but, of course, it isn’t until the end of the half hour. Then the viewers feel bad for making such poor assumptions; meanwhile, the hero is vindicated, the credits roll, and we tune in next week. But in the real world, that vindication rarely is seen. In fact, we expect perfection from others, yet rationalize our own imperfections every day.

A further example is Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment. Many people believe that simple statement cost him the 2012 presidential election. What he said was a fact-based admission that his chances were weak of winning over a demographic that believed in the current president and administration because they would not want to put in jeopardy the much-needed entitlements they were already receiving. Their opinions and votes were unlikely to be reversed. “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president, no matter what.”

Much of Romney's statement relied on assumptions about one demographic: the 47 percent of Americans who he said “pay no income tax.” A ccording to the the Tax Policy Center, which provides data from 2011, 46.4 percent of American households paid no federal income tax, Romney was right. But the same data show that nearly two-thirds of households that paid no income tax did pay payroll taxes, as well as some combination of state, local, sales, gas, and property taxes.

So, in other respects, Romney was wrong, but what he was trying to say was never clearly articulated. To me, it appeared he was saying, “Look, the people using all of the government’s current entitlements are not going to take a chance on losing those by voting for me or anyone else.” But by the time he tried to explain, the press had already shown up with the torches, tar, and feathers.

No matter what he did from the day that video was revealed, he could not sway public opinion in his favor. Some segments of the population never “let him get the truth out,” like little Carolyn in the grocery store.

Say What You Mean

In the movie A Few Good Men , Jack Nicholson’s character was pressed for the truth by the opposing lawyer, and in response bellowed, “You can’t handle the truth!” Perhaps that’s the assumption often by the press and people of influence. But if we listen to the context of that famous line, we can hear a more revealing explanation: “I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said ’thank you’ and went on your way. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to.”

Well, folks, the one entitlement we have is learning the truth, but we must pursue and find it. Perhaps the next time we are talking to our mate, our children, our peers, our staff, our parents—we should consider how we approach a situation. Do we want the truth or our version of that truth?

Can we handle that?

Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.

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