Insiders, Outsiders, and the Invisible Wink


"Inside baseball" refers to using jargon, specialized knowledge, acronyms, first names instead of full names, or other such things when speaking and writing. Using shorthand of this sort is simply more efficient when among friends, colleagues, or other "insiders." But there's a larger reason for inside references: They subtly increase the bond between the people in the know. If I tell you that Jake is sick today, and you know who Jake is without me needing to use a last name, that reinforces a defined ingroup based on our common experiences, knowledge, vernacular.

When you're with outsiders, you don't use inside references. I'd say Jake Smith, not Jake. I'd say "customer relationship management," not CRM.

Where it gets tricky is when you're in a group where there's both: some true insiders to you or the topic you're speaking/writing about, some people who are not.

When you make inside references and outsiders read/hear them, outsiders do not understand the content itself and, more importantly, feel excluded. They're in the outgroup. Sometimes the effect is trivial or inconsequential; other times it's small but meaningful.

I've been in group meetings where a few people who've worked together a long time crack an inside joke and all of us who didn't get it immediately feel like outsiders (relative to whatever bond they have). The people in on the joke feel closer, but this isn't great for overall team work and team bonding.

Romantic couples tend to do this a lot, actually, and it's annoying. You're out with a couple and they turn to each other and wink or quietly chuckle for a moment and while they feel closer, you're simply reminded of your outsider status relative to their communal bond.

So what's the right negotiation of inside vs. outside references when in a group of insiders and outsiders?

One idea: use "Invisible Winks" in your writing or speaking. A real wink, the closing of one eye, is a non-verbal cue to another insider usually about some mutually known knowledge. But a real wink is often seen by other (outsiders) in a physical context; it's also impossible to deploy in a written context. That's why the effective wink I'm talking about (in-person or in writing) needs to be "invisible" and context-agnostic. The key to an invisible wink is that insiders get the wink while outsiders do not notice the wink; additive to insiders, neutral to outsiders.

Suppose I were to write a blog post about a recent plane flight and mention that I won the critical armrest battle. For the majority of people reading this, that means nothing beyond its surface semantic content. And it's fine – they read it and move on. But for people who've been reading this blog for several years, they get the history behind the reference. It would serve as a special wink to an insider: Hey, you get the history.

Andrew Sullivan wrote a blog post awhile back (that I can't find for the life of me) in which he ended with a sentence not in quotation marks that was actually a sentence from a Yeats poem. Again, he doesn't quote Yeats with quotation marks, but he closes with Yeats's words, which happened to fit the topic perfectly. Those who didn't know it was Yeats presumably read it and absorbed it normally. Those who did catch the reference found an easter egg and felt smart — and closer to Sullivan as a result. It was the perfect invisible wink: greater bond with insiders, neutral effect on outsiders.

David Foster Wallace did this a lot, too. His writing is packed with hidden references and allusions, but not in a way where outsiders (i.e., people who don't pick up on the allusion) feel like they're "missing" something. Insiders get them, outsiders do not but do not realize they do not, and everyone is happy. As a result, DFW obtained both a mainstream audience and deep engagement with one portion of that audience. It's rare especially in academic writing and even in mainstream novelists.

In a real life, insider/outsider mixed context, an invisible wink may simply be the utterance of an inside reference without the chuckle, physical wink, or color commentary on the history of whatever it is being discussed–and only the utterances that don't make outsiders feel excluded.

Does this all sound insanely oveanalzyed? Maybe, but I think it's important. When I think about socially brilliant people, they possess a remarkable sensitivity to insider/outsider dynamics when speaking and writing to groups. It's part of what makes them socially brilliant.

Bottom Line: The best inside references strengthen bonds with those who get it while not being so obviously inside baseball that outsiders feel excluded.


Related point: I think Tyler Cowen once said that he sometimes uses fancy economic terms on his blog without defining them because it creates an aspirational effect for the portion of his readers who are not professionally trained economists. When you use a term and do not define it or even link to Wikipedia, it signals to readers that you assume they know the meaning. It gives them an opportunity to elevate themselves. Essentially, he's giving outsiders the opportunity to feel like insiders–once they brush up on their econ knowledge.

(thanks to Stan James for helping brainstorm this idea)

26 comments on “Insiders, Outsiders, and the Invisible Wink
  • I think the wealthy do a lot of this hidden signalling. I’ve noticed that once people get passed a certain level of wealth, they are often less ostentatious. Yet, they still manage to signal their wealth. To me it’s often about shoes. You can often tell a lot about people by the shoes they wear.

  • I think this was a fantastic post. I believe small things like this contribute greatly to the cohesion in an ‘in-group’ — at least in my experiences it has. I’ve noticed this, but never put it to words.

    Now that it has been brought to the forefront of my consciousness and fleshed out, I think I’m definitely going to build this in into any organization or business I become a part of.

  • This “invisible wink” theory sounds a bit condescending to me. I interpret the idea to mean that DFW (and whoever else) is providing some kind of intellectual charity to his ill-informed readers by alluding subtly without reference, not making the “little people” feel left out by his “wink.”

    I would argue the man just wrote in layers (postmodern Imagiste form-content collision style). Artists ( that is, all of us, I hope, since we are all trying to experience and express in one way or another (why else do we stick around?) ) write what we feel; that expressiveness floats off into the ether if we waste time trying to create “invisible winks.”

    Maybe what you are really trying to express is the power of open interpretation: that DFW, or Tyler Cowen, or really anyone, leaves their work open-ended, open to interpretation, a canvas where much of the art comes _after the art has already been consumed by us, so that we are not confined to some abstract, unwhole “truth” stuck in the canvas of the page. We need to define “truth” for ourselves.

  • When talking about literature, this post comes off as quite naive. A huge part of reading studying literature, going back to the Latin and Greek classics, is absorbing allusions and stories, which leads you into greater understanding of what you have newly discovered as “invisible winks”. Writers do what you describe Sullivan doing, all the time. More examples come to mind than you will have patience for: the first one that pops into my head is Tom Robbins playing off repeatedly on the “rosy fingers of dawn” in his novel “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues.”

  • Funny, I thought Tyler Cowen, of the George Mason University Economics Department, and General Director of its Koch-funded,Mercatus Center uses fancy economic terms on his blog without defining them because he doesn’t know what they mean.

    That would explain the empirical and logical howlers, unless you want to get all conspiracy theorist-like and say he’s signalling to his tribe “as a mark of social identity rather than analysis”.

    I’ve been witness to many long conversations between two people that were spoken in symbolic code, so to speak. Conversations that weren’t really at all about what they seemed to be.

    But I picture the Koch brothers sharing a loud, hearty har har and quite visible winks when they read Tyler, if they even bother.

    Elambend is right. In my business, shoes tell the whole story. The Koch brothers wear shoes made from the skin of Greepeace volunteers. I’m the guy in the Memory-foam flip-flops.;-)

  • A good post; “Van” makes an important point, which is that allusions to historical or artistic context are common – but I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about. Your point seems to be that there is an intentional effort to communicate to a particular group (not just those who are, say, well-read or -filmed). I was going to try to end this comment with an invisible wink but couldn’t come up with anything.

  • Inside baseball, indeed.

    It seems like the best writers can write consistently at dual levels: enjoyable and interesting for both insiders and novices. These are the works where re-reading yields additional insights. This happens all the time in novels, though I’ve also found myself getting the second meaning of Calvin & Hobbes and Peanuts comic strips I read as a kid when I come across them as an adult.

  • It was famous enough (sorry I can't remember the exact words!). It's like
    opening a post, "To be or not to be, that is the question." You don't need
    to quote Shakespeare necessarily; enough people will know.

  • Allusions and hidden messages have always been the way of communication of the people “inside” to keep their trade protected from dabblers and dilettantes and it those “invisible winks” will always work it’s purpose.

  • Please clarify. Is there a definition of “shibboleth” that lines up with Ben’s idea of a wink that deepens the insider’s reading without diminishing the outsider? Or are you rejecting Ben’s framework and saying any “invisible wink” amounts to a shibboleth, which my dictionary defines as “a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, esp. a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important”? Thanks.

  • Great post Ben.

    I question how often these are intentional: for example, I’ve noticed a few bands making invisible winks in their later albums (Our Lady Peace and Tears for Fears come to mind) but its difficult to say if these are intentionally invisible and/or intentionally a wink.

    But when done intentionally, this is a great method. +1 to ElamBend for the note about wealth, there are a lot of subtle cues here that may be invisible for other reasons.

  • One of my favorite teachers was the one I had for high school chemistry and o-chem. I spent many afternoons after school in the classroom with him, going over some of the easter eggs he dropped into regular lectures – bits of info or questions that (he told me) he intended to pass right by those who were working hard just to grasp the material, but be absorbed by (and pique the curiosity of) those who’d quickly become comfortable with the regular material. These were really effective ‘invisible winks’ for those of us who might otherwise have become bored with the pace of the class, since they provided both interesting tidbits to mull over AND recognition as part of an in-group. Smart teacher.

  • Fairer to say that a shibboleth is a *type* of invisible wink, designed to test/qualify only those people to whom it’s visible. But it’s clearly a test, and not all invisible winks are – some are just meant to give a warm fuzzy to the in-group without creating bad feelings in the rest, some are meant as warnings to members of the group who are engaged in/considering bad behaviour, etc.

  • I like your point about “One idea: use “Invisible Winks” in your writing or speaking. A real wink, the closing of one eye, is a non-verbal cue to another insider usually about some mutually known knowledge” because it reminds me of the older generation who would always wink at me when I was younger. I also wink during interviews at my Digital Marketing Company to make the interviewees feel more comfortable.

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