Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Man in the Turkish Costume

Whenever I have felt disrespected or not listened to, despite my abilities and experience, I always think back to the wise Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his anecdote from my favorite little book, The Little Prince. 

The narrator mentions that in 1909, some Turkish astronomer had once discovered an asteroid through his telescope. When he had tried to convince an International Astronomy Convention of the asteroid's existence, no one had believed him due to his Turkish costume.

Astronomer in a Turkish costume. 
The Little Prince

Thankfully, a Turkish dictator later imposed European dress onto his people.  The Turkish astronomer redid his presentation in 1920, dressed in an 'elegant' European costume and this time, everyone agreed with him.

This lightly humorous tale is not devoid of truth. Persuasion truly works this way. The social mechanisms at play underpin the whole gamut of human relations from the workplace to international diplomacy.


To begin, there is the appearance of the speaker. We tend to be more persuaded by those whose appearance match the culturally accepted image of their role.

Here, let's play a game.
When you think of a female engineer, what image comes to mind?
Think about it for a moment...

Oh, by the way, here's a female engineer. She was so brilliant that modern WiFi and Bluetooth depend heavily on her research.

Hedy Lamarr

I know of a few highly attractive female engineers but I will respect their privacy and not post photos here.

Needless to say, I can't think of a common 'look' that embodies some generally accepted 'image' of a female engineer. But apparently there is one. I suspect that an audience may not take a female engineer seriously unless she 'looks' the part. Whatever that is!

In our previous example, and from the point of view of the International Astronomy Convention - which likely might have been dominated by a European audience - the average generally accepted 'look' for a credible astronomer would have been: someone-who-doesn't-look-like-Ali-Baba. Sad but true.

Which brings me to credibility...


Numerous factors influence credibility. An audience is constantly looking for signs that they can trust the veracity of their speaker's words and they will use whatever they can to ascertain that fact... Often the very signs they employ as proof of credibility are flimsy and scientifically unreliable.

One of the generally accepted hallmarks of credibility is how confidently a person speaks, how well they speak. That would be the difference between an introverted aloof person and an extrovert with years of Sales experience. Guess who sounds better?

Our Turkish astronomer probably had a heavy accent.

But I digress. Interestingly, studies have demonstrated that confidence and ability with speaking does not correlate with better outcomes in task performance.  In other words, good talkers and therefore, persuasive talkers, are not necessarily the best doers nor the most knowledgeable. I forgot which study that was but I remember smiling knowingly at it.

It goes without saying that credibility can be fabricated just as it can be destroyed. Don't believe me?

Credibility, these days, is the equivalent of buying 1 million likes on Facebook and appearing as though everyone in the planet wants to read your book or worship your art. Credibility is telling everyone what you did on a daily basis and ensuring they know you are indispensable, as opposed to working quietly and keeping much to yourself. Credibility is highlighting someone's faults, so that you appear more competent.
Seriously, credibility is a load of bull mainly because there are so many gullible people out there and I am one of them.  Some people are amazing at appearing credible. I am not one of those.

Ingroup / Outgroup

We come now to a crucial factor in persuasion: does the speaker come from the same background as their audience. Studies indicate that audiences are more likely persuaded by a speaker who shares the same background, that is, the same education level/ethnic background/family situation/sports club/religion, you name it, as their own.

Our Turkish astronomer with his very Turkish costume would have really stood out at the 1909 International Convention...
His predominantly European audience would have seen him as belonging to an 'outgroup'. He would not have been one of theirs, and therefore, whatever he had to say on the highly academic (and presumably European!) topic of astronomy would have been taken lightly or discredited.

It actually depends on the topic of discussion as to whether belonging to an 'outgroup' makes you persuasive or not. If you came from a Middle Eastern background, wore traditional clothing and talked at length to a Western Human Rights group about your experience with gender descrimination in your home country, everyone would listen to you wide-eyed and gobble up everything you said (probably because they want to...See Attitudes and Prejudices later in this post). Likewise, if you published a book on your experience (whether fabricated or not), it would sell rather well.

Having said all that, based on those studies, I can't help but smile when I reflect on my ideal audience. In order to be perceived as highly persuasive or competent, my audience would need to be of mixed background, preferably with some Asian and European blood, they would need to have had a university education and to sound Australian. Because I look highly Asian, an Asian audience would also do the trick.
In fact, whenever I have felt disrespected, it usually arose from not being listened to (or being judged/dismissed etc..) by a White person.

I am certain they were not racist, in fact they were probaby unaware of their own prejudices and their tendency to listen to and favor speakers from their own group. Am I guilty of the same tendencies? Of course.

Then there is the tendency to give authority to those in your ingroup. I often laugh (sarcastically of course) when I realise that, in Australia, the workplace hierarchy practically mirrors European colonial power relations. Little has changed.

Attitudes and Prejudices

Audiences have baggage.
Audiences develop a perception of their speaker that actually has little to do with the speaker but more to do with their own past experiences and beliefs.

For example, some audiences have been raised to pay attention to what a woman is saying, only if she is above 35 and sounds strict like a teacher. Audiences have been raised to not interrupt a man but talk all over a woman when she speaks. Audiences have been taught that a deep voice is to be listened to but a high pitch voice is a sign of a weak argument. Audiences can interpret your silences as 'not knowing', even when in reality, you might have a solid understanding but keep much to yourself. I could go on...

Audiences just naturally assume. They assume from the moment you walk in the room. In 1909 they saw our Turkish man in his Turkish costume and they already knew they would dismiss him before he even uttered a word.

Let me repeat that (because repetition helps an argument too!): audiences are people with baggage. They will judge you, invent things about you, project their own weaknesses onto you, attribute your actions to intentions you never had, attribute your actions to your ethnic background or religion, in short, audiences are people. Everyone does it.

The Art of Persuading - And Why I Don't Care

When I reached 35, about five years ago, I developed a non-caring attitude about whether or not I was perceived as persuasive.  My attitude was directly related to my understanding of the nature of audiences.

I learned that if I could not persuade an audience, it was simply because it was not meant to be.

These days, I try, I am myself and I deliver my message. If this does not work, then I move on. Because people will believe whatever the hell they want.

Let me repeat that. If a person thinks like you, is really moved by your message, by who you are, by what you stand for and shares a natural understanding with you, then you do not even have to try persuading them. The two of you will click.

If you are attempting to persuade, you are already lying.

I think the so-called art of persuasion is the realm of the conman. The conman is the political machine who can tap into the baggage of their audiences and connect with them, cleverly crafting their image/argument so that no baggage stands in their way.

And that's not what The Little Prince is about.