Thinking in Public Is Not Done

William Safire writes:

When was the last time you saw a person stop and think on television?

Thinking in public is just not done. When asked a question or given some other verbal or visual cue, a panelist or interviewee will bark out an instantaneous answer. Talking points will march out smartly, often backed up by a fact or a figure to display a certain certitude.

But in a subjunctive mood, we can ask: What if a candidate, expert or pundit were to lean back in the hot seat, look up at the ceiling, wrinkle the brow, steeple the fingers — and say nothing for four or five seconds?

Unprepared! the audience expecting instant profundity would cry.

Yes. This is also true in other contexts.

Most of us, when asked a question in a public setting like in a meeting, draw upon pre-generated thoughts or ideas and slightly massage it to fit the topic at hand.

In any social situation with three or more people, I think it’s difficult to think new thoughts because we are so hung up on portraying ourselves as smart or funny. Plus, our fear of embarrassment is such that we don’t take risks in choosing what we say. We offer derivative, overly "safe" ideas as a result. This is why I find group conversations usually unsatisfying from an intellectual perspective.

Thinking and communicating this thinking are independent jobs, and hard to do simultaneously. When thrust under the spotlight, even if it’s the soft focus of friends, most of us focus on communicating pre-existing thoughts, and not actually thinking.

I respond to the above logic in two ways:

a) create substantial amounts of alone time so that I can think and read and write by myself. If I don’t set aside time to reflect, I only live in the chaos of the moment and can never think hard with a clear mind.

b) favor one-on-one conversations over group settings if the task at hand is brainstorming or idea generation. One-on-ones are more likely immune to challenges of group convos.

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