If you’re good, you need to talk more

Published 2019-07-09.

One evening last fall, I was invited to play a board game called Avalon. The game is a contest between a good team and a bad team. Through a series of public and private votes and discussion at the table, the bad people try to masquerade as good, while the good try to figure out who is good and who is bad.

I was assigned to the good team. I was the only one in the group who had never played before, so I took a backseat for the first few rounds, speaking little. To my surprise, this caused many players to suspect that I was bad.

“If you’re good,” one of them said to me, “you need to talk more.”

I protested that bad people can speak just as easily as good people. How could I convince other players to trust me when any word I said might be a lie?

What I had failed to understand was that because of the burden of deception, talking is much more cognitively demanding for the bad people than for the good. It’s hard to maintain a consistent lie over the course of the whole game. This means that the best strategy for those on the good team is to consistently share their own thoughts and solicit those of all others. Not only does this shine a harsh light on the liars, but it also makes a greater amount of true information available for all good players to reason with.

If you’re good, you need to talk more. I’ve come to realize that this idea goes far beyond the game of Avalon. In many facets of our lives, we draw from and contribute to an epistemic commons—a shared set of beliefs and norms that help us predict and understand the world and each other. In each facet, whether familial, social, professional, or civic, our lives are better when the epistemic commons is filled with true beliefs and productive norms. In fact, a healthy commons, with its high levels of mutual trust and perceived alignment, has the power to make our lives much better. Consider the expressive freedom and the unguardedness that were unlocked in the blossoming of your closest friendships.

But there are many ways the epistemic commons can become unhealthy. Like in Avalon, many groups of people contain bad actors who corrupt the commons for their own gain. Not only that, but the commons can degrade even without bad actors, simply because the world is complex and ever-changing. Ideas don’t have to be true to be catchy, and so misconceptions can spread through the commons like viruses.

What I came to understand after playing Avalon that night is that the health of an epistemic commons is maintained only under the active stewardship of good people—people who want to discover the truth and share it, who want their communities to operate under norms that allow everyone to flourish.

You might say that good stewardship isn’t so much about talking more as it is knowing when not to talk. You might say that it is often ineffectual, and sometimes counterproductive, to opine on subjects in which you are uninformed or undecided. Many of us have internalized the idea that we need to do our homework and think through our positions carefully before sharing, so that we don’t waste everyone’s time and attention.

I can certainly empathize with this view. If you’re like me, you often attend work meetings in which you feel doubtful of arguments people make. In these meetings I find it challenging to speak my mind, especially when I need to expend a lot of energy just to understand other people’s perspectives, let alone feel confident in my own.

But I have learned, through feedback and experience, that the less confident I am in my opinion, the more important it is for me to speak up. I think this is because when I’m feeling uncertain, it’s likely that other people are too. The more confident voices tend to dominate the conversation, and everyone else tends to nod along or just sit in silence. It’s far better to say “I don’t think I agree with this view, but I need some time to think about why” than to say nothing and then go off and do your homework. Silence is tacit agreement with the consensus. Revealing your uncertainty in real time helps to forestall harmful misunderstandings.

Moreover, whatever thoughts and ideas you do have, even if they are insufficient to solve the problem at hand, can provide scaffolding for others to find a solution. Assuming that others are searching for mutually beneficial ideas, why not provide them with as much data as possible?

Not everyone should adopt the “talk more” philosophy, of course. But I think many people are like me: they tend to err on the side of undersharing rather than oversharing. So, to those people: if you’re good, you need to talk more! Here are some concrete ways I’m doing this in my own life:

  1. Making an effort to be as open and responsive as possible with loved ones: reaching out more, responding faster, expressing dissatisfaction more readily, and offering praise whenever it occurs to me. I don’t think I had problems in this area before, but I believe that explicitly aspiring to this behavior has made me a better friend and partner.
  2. Redistributing speaking time to quieter people when group conversations become lopsided. I’ve heard it said that if you’re in a conversation with one other person you should aim to speak 50% of the time. This generalizes well: in a conversation with five people, speak 20% of the time; with ten people, 10%; etc. When the Gini coefficient gets too high, be a conversational Robin Hood.
  3. Being more vocal at work: speaking up more in meetings, writing more thorough documentation, leaving more detailed comments in code reviews, and sharing links that are relevant to company projects in the #random Slack channel. I work at a startup that seems poised to do big things, so I think my communicativeness within the company is one of the best opportunities I currently have to make a difference in the world.
  4. Participating more actively on Twitter. This means writing more Tweets of my own, responding more frequently to others, and being more liberal in my use of the ‘like’ button. Like anyone, I need to be careful not to get too engrossed by social media, but having put some effort into curating my feed, I find that Twitter is a predominantly positive thing in my life.
  5. Writing more blog posts. Writing takes a lot of work, and more often than not, what I write doesn’t bring me much recognition. But occasionally I hear a word or two of thanks for sharing an idea that helped or stimulated someone, and this is enough to convince me that my efforts are worthwhile.

The sixth is still aspirational, but will hopefully be realized soon: play Avalon again! I’ve bought the game, but have yet to take the initiative to bring together enough people to play. Beyond the fact that it’s an absolute blast, I’ve been told there’s an additional benefit to playing regularly: you learn what it looks like when a person is trying to sabotage the commons rather than nourish it.

Luckily, real life is rarely as adversarial as Avalon, so we don’t usually need to be so suspicious of those around us. But I know of no experience that better demonstrates the challenges of collaborative truth-seeking, and the responsibility of good people to talk more.

Thanks to Kevin Kwok for inspiring this post and for his insightful feedback on it. Thanks also to Meg Inman, Matthew Jordan, and Kevin Simler for their valuable feedback on earlier drafts.

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