The Quotations-in-Stories Litmus Test

Listen to conversations around you. As people tell and recount stories, do they directly quote someone (… “Yeah, Gates finally said, ‘We should really get together after New Year’s.’” …) or do they simply paraphrase and reframe a story without quoting dialogue directly (… “I saw Gates, and he finally said we should get together after New Year’s.” …)?

I’ve been listening and wondering, is there a difference between the two? If someone directly quotes dialogue, tries to tell stories by playing roles in a conversation rather than paraphrasing it, does it indicate they can empathize more or less? Do they just tell stories differently? It’s a Quotation Litmus Test in the making.

That's from Liz Danzico of the popular blog Bobulate, in semi-reply to my thought on the I'm-Proud-of-You Litmus Test. The most innocent explanation for why someone role plays versus paraphrases when recounting a story has to do with the uniqueness of the dialogue and the storyteller's ability to recall the exact wording. Liz ponders a more complex explanation which is whether role playing vs. paraphrasing can reveal the storyteller's empathy to the people at hand. Definitely plausible. When telling a story of which we disapprove or shun we're more likely to quote characters' words directly; when telling a story that we're more keen to associate with, we'll paraphrase into our own language.

For new readers, litmus tests are small, quick things you can look for in another person's behavior, language, interests, etc. that can reliably predict a bigger idea.

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Other links from around the web:

  • Daniel Drezner and Matthew Yglesias discuss public diplomacy in this 17 minute video excerpt. Worth watching and related to my post the other week the real work of American diplomats abroad. Also, note Drezner's and Yglesias's conversation rhythem — it's natural, respectful, forward-moving. Everything a conversation should be. (Granted, they're in agreement, which is easier, but still.)
  • Glengarry Glen-Christmas: Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live does a Christmas edition of his famous Glengarry Glen-Ross sales scene.
  • Seth Godin offers good tips on how to organize a retreat / event.
  • Dan Ariely on the Significant Objects Project, a fascinating case of how narrative adds meaning.
  • Need a technical co-founder? Charlie O'Donnell says hire a product design lead first.
  • Mark Suster continues write an outstanding blog about entrepreneurship and venture capital.

One Response to The Quotations-in-Stories Litmus Test

  1. Simen says:

    Empathy is a complex thing. I don’t think we can predict it simply by looking at superficial sentence structure. Certainly not by simple anecdotal evidence (or, worse, hypothetical anecdotal evidence).

    The original litmus test comes from chemistry, and is very well supported by experimental evidence. If you’re going to be making grand pronouncements about “bigger ideas” based on “another person’s behavior, language, interests, etc.”, keep that in mind.

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