Monday, May 22, 2006

Faking It

Just about anything that can be manufactured can be faked. Money. Drivers licenses. Designer jeans. Even conversation.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that he had to hurry home to watch that evening’s episode of “American Idol”.

I acted unimpressed. “The chick’s gonna win,” I offered.

“I dunno,” he replied. “I think that skinny guy’s got a pretty good chance.

I smiled. Once again I had proven to myself that any conversation can be faked, even if you know absolutely nothing about the subject.

I hadn’t watched an episode of “American Idol” all year. I have absolutely no interest in the topic at all. I read an article in Reader’s Digest about last year’s winner and I had seen enough in the papers to know that most of the time a chick is usually one of the last ones standing. So I figured it was a safe bet to lead any discussion about the show with “The chick’s gonna win.” Can’t fail.

I live about half of my life making conversation about things I have absolutely no knowledge of or interest in. I’m one of those guys who knows just a little bit about a lot of things but not a lot about anything. So it’s relatively easy to find some common ground, run with it, and then just follow the lead of the other person.

When the topic turns to sports, it’s almost always possible to say something like “Hey, how about that game last Sunday?” It doesn’t matter that you don’t know who played on Sunday. The chances are that somebody  played. Once you figure out who played and whether they won or lost and if the game ended on a controversial play, the rest is easy.

This is possible because of two tendencies of human nature. One is that people will always fill in the blanks in their own mind. That’s why pixilation works. People can see that digital pictures on a computer screen or in a magazine are really just a series of dots. But their minds fill in the gaps between the dots to make a continuous picture. They do the same thing in conversation. When presented with incomplete facts, people fill in the unknown facts with facts of their own choosing. That’s why you don’t have to say the name of the chick that’s going to win or the name of the team that played last Sunday. Given an incomplete thought, people will instinctively fill it in.

The other bit of human nature that makes it work is that people tend to advertise their thoughts. It’s called “telegraphing”. Poker players learned this a hundred years ago. They don’t know if their opponent has a good hand by reading the back of the cards. They can tell a lot more by reading their eyebrows and the corners of their mouth.

Mind-reading magicians — they like to be called “mentalists” — have made a living of doing this. A common trick it to get an audience participant to reveal secrets without realizing it. A mentalist may ask a widow, “Did your husband linger before he died or did he pass quickly?” When the widow replies that his death was very quick, the magician can say, “Yes, I thought so, because I hear him telling me that there was no pain.” She goes away amazed that the guy actually talked to her dead husband.

Most of my friends don’t know how many conversations I fake, but my guess is that it’s three or four a day. It’s not really deception, sometimes it’s just the polite thing to do. I’d rather spare them the embarrassment of telling them that I’m really not even remotely interested in their trivial drivel. I’ve kept a lot of friends by being dishonest with them.

Besides, it’s kinda fun.

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