Being right can be embarrassing. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but at some point we realize that saying that thing or correcting that person was not a good idea. We realize that we were wrong in our rightness. There is a right time and a right place for correctness, but knowing when not to speak is the key. And where does this principle seem to cause the most confusion? A place where we’re told that accuracy and timeliness are top priorities—the workplace.
Office environments are the perfect setting to discuss the potential woes of being right. In 2014 Lauris Beinerts’ parody video “The Expert” made waves across the Internet with its cheeky look at the stereotypical office idiot. The short film takes place in a nondescript conference room where Anderson, “the expert,” attempts to explain to his four colleagues why the task at hand—drawing seven red lines, all perpendicular to one another and some with green ink—is fundamentally impossible. As the meeting unfolds, it becomes clear that only Anderson sees the logical discrepancies of the absurd request. Everyone else? Idiots.
The popularity of Beinert’s video is due to its ubiquity. We can all relate to the frustration of Anderson-The-Expert. We have all thought during a meeting, “Why are we still talking about this? Isn’t it obvious?” But maybe there are other times, times that, without realizing it, we are the office dunces. Rather than lambasting the bumbling co-worker, we should consider the flaws of being right. Perhaps Anderson is actually the office idiot.
Once his co-worker says something obviously wrong, Anderson has a decision to make—say something or stay quiet. If the point of the meeting is to correct misconceptions, then correct away! That’s being right at the right place and time. However, meetings are often called upon for one reason when, in fact, they have a different, unspoken purpose. This is where the confusion comes in.
It’s important to align the purpose for being right with the overall purpose of the situation. Anderson might think he’s being helpful in his explanation that red ink is not, in fact, green ink; however, if there are more pressing matters to attend, then perhaps Anderson’s comments are wasting productive time. Or maybe Anderson’s boss knows full well that the details of the project are irrelevant for the final product, hoping Anderson will simply agree and let the matter rest. Whatever the case may be, just having correct information does not necessitate sharing it.
Of course, for jobs dealing with life or death (ex. structural engineering, law enforcement, surgery, etc.), being right is crucial. There’s no time to waste wondering whether the truth should or shouldn’t be said. For most jobs, however, we don’t have those kinds of restrictions. And for those jobs, timing is everything.
Whether it’s launching a product, delivering a joke, meeting a soulmate, or buying a house, timing can make or break a situation. Being right is no different. There’s an internet meme with Jeff Bridges sitting back as The Dude from The Big Lebowski, which reads, “You’re not wrong / You’re just an asshole.” This strikes at the heart the timing issue. We must know when to say something and when to shut up.
For my wedding, my father gave me a newspaper clipping with some marital advice. It read, “Before you speak, ask yourself, ‘Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?’” Being right is only the first part. Knowing when to be silent is much more powerful, more wise, than anything we may have to say.
This is the first installment of a series titled “Too Smart for Your Own Good.”