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Crying Wolf

by guest blogger Renee Calvert

A recent trend I’ve noticed has really been bothering me. I run across this insidious behavior everywhere – mostly online, but it’s happened a few times in real-life conversations and while watching TV, too.

Ladies and gentlemen, can we please stop exaggerating the truth when we’re trying to make a point?

It’s rampant. Content aggregators like Buzzfeed post articles like “Flawless celebrity pictures that will ruin your life!” I’m inundated daily with articles reposted by friends on Facebook that claim meat will give me cancer and the government is actively trying to destroy my life. Even on the news, networks are so frenzied, so eager to have the most sensational story, that they’ll scrounge every sordid and salacious detail about a story, relevant or not, to paint an incomplete (and often inaccurate) picture.

These attitudes are compromising our culture. And no, that’s not an exaggeration. Because of the hyperbole, the sensationalism, the fear-mongering and unwillingness to accept any point but our own as truth, left and right politicians, corporations, institutions and individuals are making themselves appear foolish in the eyes of their followers. In a world where any fact can be easily Googled in 30 seconds and any information can be verified by a variety of sources, being credible is key to being taken seriously and connecting with people.

Think about the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. The story goes that a boy was given the job of watching over the village’s flock of sheep, a major responsibility. But the job was boring, so to drum up some excitement and attention, the boy ran through the village shouting that a wolf was attacking the flock. Panicked, the villagers all ran to the field where the sheep were grazing. When they discovered there was no wolf, they chided the boy and left. But the boy loved the chaos he was able to cause simply by shouting about wolves, so he did it again the next day. The town was even more furious with him when, again, they found there was no wolf. Eventually, when wolves DID show up, no one in the town believed him, so the little boy and the entire flock were eaten.

Fables like this one work because the moral conveyed is timeless. When sources that are supposedly credible and responsible for telling the truth (TV news networks, politicians, your Facebook friends) make exaggerated claims that, with a little digging, you find are untrue, little by little your trust in that source wanes. So when something important happens, something that needs to be shared with the public because their safety or well-being is at stake… will anyone actually listen? Or will people assume that, because a source has been wrong or off-center so many times before, they’re wrong again?

When everything is billed with the same level of gravity, no one knows how seriously to take anything, and they eventually tune out. By exaggerating and crying wolf, you undermine your own credibility.

So how do we pump the brakes and temper sensationalism? Here are some things to consider the next time you feel compelled to share an article or information.

1. Check your Sources

Normally when I make lists, they’re not in a particular order. However, this #1 because I cannot say it loudly enough. Check your sources. Far too many times people have shared articles from The Daily Mail or The Onion with a dire warning to their friends to heed the advice given. The problem is that The Daily Mail is the UK Equivalent of The National Enquirer – y’know, the sort of grocery store tabloid that claims it has pictures of Big Foot having tea with Elvis. And The Onion is a parody of the news and always has been.

Also important is understanding a source’s confirmation bias. Of course a website like Vegansagainsteatingmeat.com is going to publish diatribes on how horrible and abusive eating animal products is. That is the nature and purpose of the site. It isn’t necessarily wrong to favor like-minded sources, but what they say is not the end-all-be-all truth. If sources are linked within an article, click on those links and see if they’re credible and verifiable. Scientists, agencies and institutions have strict regulations about publishing inaccurate information, and when findings are published, they are tested extensively by others. Therefore it is safe to assume that a scientific report or published work from a public institution is more accurate and believable. Sites and sources lacking this kind of verification are not.

Exercise discernment. Think about what you’re reading, and do a little extra checking before you tell your entire Facebook wall that you’re never doing something again. Because you might be operating with only half the available information.

2. What’s the other side of the story?

This is a dangerous one for some people, but it’s a necessary danger. In an enlightened society like ours is supposed to be, discourse and understanding are the keys to being able to relate to others. When you proclaim that anything and everything Obama does is evil, you potentially alienate anyone you associate with who may not have the same political views as you (the opposite is true, too).

Some of you may be thinking “but I don’t want to see it their way, I want people to see things MY way!” Let me ask you this – why is it so important that we always be right? When did things become so polarized that only one side can be right, and every other opinion that even slightly differs is completely wrong? The reality of the situation – any situation – is that there are more sides of the story than just your own. Exclusively watching either Bill O’Reily or Anderson Cooper is going to create political bias, and an us vs. them mentality. By shutting out anyone who disagrees with you, you end up shutting yourself and your views out of their consideration. I’m not advocating prolonged exposure to something you strongly dislike. But I am advocating that you figure out the reasons someone might have for thinking a certain way beyond “clearly they are stupid and therefore wrong.”

So instead of immediately raising your defenses and preparing a scathing argument based on your perspective, your knowledge, your information before someone else can speak, listen. Be willing to consider that what they have to say may have some merit. They have reasons behind their convictions and beliefs, just as you do yours. And who knows – maybe in engaging in open discourse, you can find a chance to tell your story to open ears, too.

So when you feel compelled to share an article about what a wonderful, awesome person a politician you like is, first check your sources… and then check what others have to say. Maybe the people who think that person is an awful, humanity-hating monster have a good reason. Shades of grey will always give you a much clearer, deeper picture than stark black-and-white.

3. Remember that not everyone cares about the same things you do

Did you know that natural red food coloring is made out of crushed beetles? Or did you see Miley Cyrus’s performance at the 2013 VMAs? Did you hear that Obama used to smoke? Or that hackers can use iPhones to sense the vibrations of what you’re typing, thus stealing all your passwords? Some people might react to these facts with horror and outrage. Bugs in my food?! Hackers?! Adults exercising personal behaviors that offend me?! But here’s the thing.

Most people don’t care.

They don’t. While it might seem strange to think there are crushed beetles in your strawberry yogurt, the proteins used to make the dye have been so far removed from the actual insect that it really doesn’t matter. And yes, the threat of hackers is alarming, but many people have already taken the precautions (or don’t even have a smart phone to begin with) to worry too much about their password security being threatened in such a narrow way. And any person in the news – celebrities, politicians, glory hounds in search of their 15 minutes – all of them are human beings endowed with the right to make whatever decision in their personal life, good or bad, they want to make. You could argue that these people have a responsibility to set an example, but even then it’s a flimsy argument. These are fallible humans, not gods-among-men, and that’s a little much to expect. And, some people really, really don’t care about Beyonce’s haircut or Bristol Palin’s baby or Justin Beiber’s anything.

You are free to declare that you will never buy another GMO food again and state your reasons. But to constantly harass your friends about the food they eat when they really, truly don’t care only serves to push them away and undermines your credibility. Should they care? Maybe. You obviously have your reason to care, and maybe it’s a significant enough reason that you feel compelled to convince other people to care, too. But simply fire-hosing people who aren’t interested with information is an ineffective way to do so. See point #2.

It’s all about communication. You can shout your opinion from a soapbox and wave your facts around. You can believe everything you hear prima facie, and regurgitate that information later, even if others can prove it wrong. Or, you can build your credibility and trust by reaching out and looking at information from all angles and search for the real truth of a story. Anything else and you’re just crying wolf.

Keep connecting with the people and priorities that matter most to you! When you are ready to CONNECT! for professional and personal development, count on People First Productivity Solutions. We offer coaching, leadership development programs and resources for companies and for individuals. Join the CONNECT! Community on LinkedIn or Facebook.

Topics: Be More Accountable, CONNECT2LEAD Blog, credibility, ethics, making assumptions, Telling the Truth, trust

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